Obama Lobbying Pays Off

Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:50pm

He may not always get his way, but more often than not, President Barack Obama seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to persuading Members of Congress to get on board with his agenda.

According to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), proof of the effectiveness of Obama’s face-to-face lobbying can be summed up in two words: Dennis Kucinich.

The outspoken Ohio liberal has been a loyal critic of Obama’s policies and had been vowing to oppose health care reform over its lack of a single-payer system. But Kucinich announced last week that he would switch from a “no” to a “yes” on Obama’s proposal, a decision that came after heavy pressure from the White House, including four personal meetings with the president. Last Monday, Obama lobbied him on Air Force One on a joint trip to Ohio and twice called him out in a speech there. Two days later, Kucinich endorsed the overhaul.

Kucinich said his talks with Obama weren’t the only reason that he decided to switch his vote. But he underscored the effectiveness of Obama engaging with Members on a more congenial level, whether it be through one-on-one meetings or at his many White House receptions, as a way to get business done.

“It’s actually pretty smart politics,” the Ohio Democrat who twice ran for president said. “The social dimension of Washington is a place where many decisions are made.”

Indeed, the White House hosted several events in the past month that have proved fertile territory for Member lobbying. Last week, Obama invited a number of fence-sitting Democrats on health care to attend a signing ceremony for jobs legislation and the next day to a St. Patrick’s Day reception. Among them, Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.). All three were also invited to a reception earlier this month to celebrate Congress reinstating its budget-neutral pay-as-you-go rules.

“These are political events; people talk politics,” said Cardoza, a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat, adding that Obama has asked to meet with him privately on several occasions on different issues. “My discussions with Obama aren’t about me getting pushed. It’s about having a conversation. You take these opportunities when you can.”

White House officials acknowledge that Obama has used social functions to personally reach out to lawmakers who have been waffling on health care and other issues important to the president.

“Obviously … he had talked to Members who had visited for, like, a PAYGO reception or things like that. He has made individual calls now and I anticipate he’ll continue to do that,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a briefing last week. Gibbs said Friday that the president had held 64 meetings or phone calls with Members on health care reform in the past four days.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), also a Blue Dog and someone who wavered on his health care vote, said he was “delighted” to be invited to Obama’s PAYGO reception. “He’s the most powerful man in the world. It’s always impressive to get a chance to go be with that person,” he said.

Boyd said health care was a main topic of discussion at the reception, which also hosted Democratic leaders including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), but he added that lobbying efforts were wasted on him since his support on any issue is based on what is in the actual bill.

The real benefit to attending White House parties is that they “might give you a chance to talk about some of the things you like and some of the things you don’t like,” he said.

Obama’s charm offensive appears to have had major sway with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Several Hispanic lawmakers were hedging in their support for health care over its provisions aimed at restricting benefits for illegal immigrants. But after Obama scrambled to hold two meetings at the White House last week — one with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to discuss their efforts to advance immigration reform legislation, and another with the CHC — the caucus publicly offered a unified voice of support for health care.

One CHC Member said Obama ultimately won over the group’s support for the overhaul by promising to push harder for immigration reform this year. “That was the understanding,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said.

But Obama’s willingness to get personally involved in lobbying lawmakers hasn’t always paid off.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) left a private meeting with Obama on Thursday still unconvinced that he would support the health care bill. “I must be either thick-skinned or thick-skulled” for not being won over by Obama’s persuasiveness, Lynch said.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who wavered on health care and was invited to several White House events in the past month, said Friday that he had been ignoring phone calls from the White House that were presumably about his vote.

“With all due respect to the president, I’ve got to look at what’s best in my district. Whether he’s popular or not popular in my district, I don’t want to get into that,” Cuellar said. “At the end of the day, when we take a vote, he’s not going to be out there supporting me running my election.”

Lawmakers in competitive districts also sought to distance themselves from private conversations that they have had with Obama.

Two key targets of Obama’s lobbying on health care — Murphy and Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.), the only Republican who voted for health care in the fall — declined to comment on the president’s outreach.

Murphy said he “wasn’t able to make it” to Obama’s St. Patrick’s Day reception and would leave it to “other people” to weigh in how much personal sway the president has had with them.