For President Barack Obama, schmoozing with elected officials is like eating spinach. “This is not something that he loves. He wasn’t that kind of senator,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told The New York Times back in August.
Obama is more of a loner than a social animal, as he makes only to clear in is book Dreams From My Father, in which he wrote that during his time in school he was “prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions.” But being a loner isn’t always a good thing when you’re working in politics. It helps to be well spoken, careful, exact, and intelligent, but when we talk about politicians, you’d better be ready to kiss babies and charm your way past rough patches. At least, that’s always the stereotype we’ve been led to expect. It’s hardly surprising that so many politicians have been actors, as IMDB shows us.
Truth be told, not all politicians have been charmers, historically, and not all of their behavior has been charming. Some of them have been grumpy old men with odd habits; Calvin Coolidge slept ten hours a day and enjoyed having Vaseline rubbed into his head, John Adams liked to skinny dip every morning in the Potomac river, and there have been plenty or presidents with personality quirks that made them difficult to work with.
That said, Obama has a practically frosty relationship with Congress these days — there’s ice crystals forming on his pen and telephone receiver — and that extends to his relationship with his own party. Is he too hands off?
Is it possible his dismissive unwillingness to schmooze, as McCaskill put it, is a problem with a little more meat to it. “In order to work with people, you need to establish the relationship first before you ask for something. And I think one of the things the White House has not done well and the president has not done well is the simple idea of establishing relationships before there is a crisis,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) to The New York Times, which reported a degree of tension between Obama and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid had brought up problems with Republican leader Mitch McConnell in passing Obama’s nominees for ambassadors, and Obama had cut him off with, “You and Mitch work it out,” The New York Times reports.
There’s been a great deal of commentary batted back and forth between Republicans and Obama. The GOP claims he won’t work with them, and that they don’t trust him to follow through on what efforts they make. Obama claims he’s eager to work with them, but they won’t get down to business. “Work it out” seems like an accurate portrayal of the difficulty in Congress at the moment.
Democrats and Republicans are gridlocked, and the president is hands off and hands out; he’ll do what he can from the Oval Office but other than that, he’s waiting on Congress to cooperate. Unfortunately, Congress can’t, or won’t, and it’s hardly surprising that division is so extreme given that there’s a bit of a chill even between Obama and Democrats in Congress. There is an argument to be made that Obama may have benefited from a semester or two in charm school — maybe one taught by Kennedy. He could be more proactive about networking. But realistically it may be too late at this point in the game.Are the chilly relations really his fault?
Yes, Obama may have given up to a degree on heavily proactive outreach efforts to Congress, but that’s likely in recognition of conditions. He has less than two years left in office, midterms are around the bend/continually raging, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is attempting to sue him. Not to mention Obamacare’s role in devastating inter-party relations for a seemingly never ending time period.
Still, as a leader you can inherit economic problems, debt, and war, but you can’t inherit poor relationships. You make, or fail to make, those all on your own as a leader. Politicians are people too, not machines — as we are too often reminded by the mistakes and tempter tantrums we see from them. This means that strong working relationships can help poor political climates. The ability to have a civil conversation makes for a strong advantage — a pleasant one even more so.
Yet it’s also fair to posit that some of the chill could be Democrats desire to distance themselves from their party’s highly unpopular president. This week’s 41 percent approval rating — from Gallup — isn’t helpful, and criticizing the president may be a better strategy than seeming overtly friendly to him, as an incumbent or as a Democratic challenger.
Besides, Obama is hardly the only president to have a difficult relationship with his own party. Roosevelt had a terrible temper; when an anti-Supreme Court bill FDR favored didn’t pass through congress, he actively campaigned against incumbent congressmen who had opposed his policy choices and efforts. And their own opinion of him reflected that, as you’d imagine.
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Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS