Memo to President Barack Obama: Next time you decide to charm House Republicans, don’t meet with them on the same day you’re scheduled to headline a fundraiser for your campaign organization turned issue advocacy pressure group.
Several House Republicans emerged from Wednesday’s closed-door session with Obama complimentary of the president’s tone and effort to reach out. They said there was no tension in the room and that they remain hopeful that their Capitol Hill get-together was the first step in a new era of engagement, dialogue and negotiation between the Congress and this president. Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio held a brief private one-on-one meeting after the event, according to a GOP source.
But underscoring the deep trust deficit that remains, House Republicans were very aware of the fact that just a few hours after Obama departed the Capitol, he was set to speak at a dinner for Organizing for Action. The group is run by the president’s former 2012 campaign staffers and has been billed as intended to apply political pressure on Congress to enact Obama’s agenda.
“I’m waiting to hear what he says at OFA tonight. … I think that ‘s when we get the real gauge about whether or not he’s really willing to bridge the gap,” Maryland Rep. Andy Harris said, adding that Obama should tell OFA “that you have to actually concede issues to the other side. If that’s not the message that he delivers to OFA, then his charm offensive really is for the media.”
“For him to stand there before the conference and say that nothing that he does has a political undertone, I have a hard time taking him seriously,” Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador said. He added that he would prefer that Obama simply admit that engaging in political activity is a part of the business that they’re in but he hopes they can still do work together on legislation. “That would be totally sincere.”
Labrador and Harris were elected in 2010 and are identified with the tea party movement.
But more pragmatic Republican members echoed the sentiments, albeit not for attribution. One such congressman said Obama “admitted” that he wasn’t offering House Republicans any policy concessions or proposals that they might be able to consider supporting; another said the meeting provided no breakthrough moments. This second member said flatly that he does not expect the president to “follow through” on his charm offensive with more meaningful, ongoing engagement.
House Republicans said the question-and-answer exchange resulted in a frank discussion of views, and they credited Obama with listening to what they had to say. But they sensed no thaw in what is otherwise a relationship so chilly that many members say they have had zero contact with the administration since Obama took office in 2009.
Rep. Lee Terry said he met or spoke with President Bill Clinton three times in two years; the Nebraska Republican has never spoken with anyone in this White House. Even Terry’s letters have been ignored, he said. Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, who hasn’t served nearly as long as Terry, said her lack of trust dates back to the August 2011 debt ceiling deal and what she views as an administration that didn’t keep its word throughout the course of the negotiations.
Mistrust and suspicion between a president and members of Congress — particularly when they’re from opposing political parties — is not unheard of and is often quite common. But the fact is, it pervades the relationship, or lack thereof, between Obama and the House Republican majority and makes it that much harder for both sides to reach an accord on already contentious fiscal issues.
“You are tentative when you have someone who, frankly, I’ve been here two and a half years and this is the first time that this president has reached out to the other side to really talk about working together,” Black said.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.