Congress hasn’t passed a budget in four years, so the sudden approval of the Ryan-Murray budget last week came as something of a surprise. What changed this time? President Barack Obama avoided getting involved.
“I think this budget deal worked, quite frankly – let’s go right to the center of this – because Obama was not part of the negotiations,” said Bob Woodward, a noted journalist who has interviewed the president and key Capitol Hill leaders hundreds of times. “He is not a good negotiator,” said Woodward.
In The Price of Politics, Woodward documented in exceptional detail the 2011 negotiations of the “fiscal cliff.” Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama were allegedly very close to agreeing on a “grand bargain,” when one last phone call from the president brought the deal down. At the last minute, Obama wanted to add an additional $400 billion of revenue increases into the deal.
It’s interesting to note the difference between the Obama running for office and the Obama negotiating with Congress. In 2008, journalists were in awe of Obama’s charm and believed he would bring a new unity to American politics. Peter Wehner of the Washington Post even claimed he was “an appealing figure to many Republicans.”
So what happened?
Once in office, Obama began vilifying Republicans at every turn. When he didn’t feel like negotiations were going his way, he traveled the country belittling the other party in campaign-style speeches. When Republicans refused to sign on to the Obama agenda, “Republican obstructionism” became a catchphrase for media outlets and the justification for Democratic politicians to change the rules.
But the president also has tensions with Democratic leaders in Congress. Influential Democratic senators that recalled hours of fruitful conversations with President Clinton told Woodward they had barely spoken with the president at all. While House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was negotiating with Vice President Joe Biden and other legislators in 2011, Obama went over their heads and reached out directly to Boehner. This approach burned many bridges beyond repair.
Obama has frequently been described as cool and distant by journalists, congressmen, and former staffers. Just this fall, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urged the president to put more importance on building relationships with members of Congress. “What is missing today is that engagement, that willingness to engage with other people, listening to them, being willing to find out what is it they need,” said Panetta.
After a period of congressional gridlock, the recent budget success without the White House’s involvement should be a clue to the president. Perhaps his influence is more harmful than helpful at this point in his presidency.
Obama defended his inability to build relationships with Congress by claiming he was trying to be a better father. “Sometimes on the weekends, we may turn down the invitation to this or that or the other just because we’re trying to carve out family time,” he told CNN last year. While this sounds admirable, he should spend less time attacking Republicans in speeches across the country and use that time to actually get to know them.
Originally published on Washington Times Communities.