He called off the traditional picnic for lawmakers not once but twice last summer, then missed both congressional holiday balls so he could speak at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. But now plans seem locked down for everyone in the 113th Congress to have at least one sociable interaction with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Don’t expect those feel-good moments to do anything to alter the do-nothing nature of the relationship between Congress and the president.
Save-the-date emails have gone out to every member. They advise lawmakers to plan on bringing their spouses and kids to the South Lawn for supper, family-friendly entertainment and maybe even a snapshot with the first couple on Sept. 17. (There's even a rain date, scheduled for the next night if necessary.)
Given that it will be approaching two years since rank-and-file members were able to break bread with the president, and that the party is in the middle of a week when both the House and Senate will be in session, turnout is guaranteed to be strong. Even the most combative junior Republicans and the most jaded senior Democrats can’t resist a social invitation from the White House — especially one that allows them to usher their families into town to taste the sort of history-tinged glamour that’s largely disappeared from congressional life.
The picnic also guarantees at least one weeknight in Washington this year when the relentless machinery of campaign fundraising will be throttled to almost a full stop.
There's no chance that an evening of bonhomie and burgers will do anything to narrow the partisan chasm. And the opportunity to peer into Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden at dusk won't prompt any lawmaker to think better of the West Wing’s legislative liaison efforts. If nothing else, the party will come long after the perceptions that members of this Congress have developed about one another, and about Obama, have become calcified.
For almost three decades, the cookout was staged in the golden light of early summer, in time for the afterglow to shine favorably on some bipartisan dealmaking in even the most rancorous election years. At this year’s shindig the sun will set at 7:13 p.m., which is 80 minutes earlier than Tuesday night's sunset. It will be the final Wednesday before the start of fall — and less than six weeks before the voters decide how many of the guests will not be invited back for any 2015 get-together.
The House plans to be around for only six days after the picnic, and the Senate eight days at most, before lawmakers decamp to campaign full time. It will essentially be too late, in other words, to ratify before the election any legislative breakthrough that might get scrawled onto the red-checked tablecloths.
If such a bargain gets struck, the players will very likely come from the relatively small cadre of lawmakers in both parties with political interest in showing their constituents they’re capable of cooperation. The picnic’s host may raise a beer bottle to toast the accord, but it’s doubtful he will have been in on the deal.
Obama has been even more extraordinarily distant from Congress than usual so far this year, and not just because of his decision to prosecute almost his entire second-term policy agenda without using the legislative process . That approach has infuriated the Republicans, of course, because it leaves them without fewer-than-hoped-for opportunities to filibuster the president in the Senate and rebuff him outright in the House.
But their bemoaning of Obama’s “imperial presidency” is now the less interesting half of the story. The more interesting half is the increasing level of annoyed surprise from the president’s fellow Democrats, who can’t quite believe Obama is so willing to disrespect his allies just as frequently as his adversaries at the Capitol.
Most recently, they have been sharing exasperation with Republicans about the swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban big shots — and not only because Obama ignored a statute requiring Congress be given a month’s notice before releasing prisoners from the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Hill Democrats were especially miffed at being lumped together with the GOP as untrustworthy leakers, the administration’s rationale for not keeping members in the loop. And they said they surely would have appreciated a heads-up so they might have been able to prepare for the politically dicey fallout from Bergdahl’s surprise release.
Add that to the roster of issues on which many vulnerable Democrats feel defensive — the health care law, the power plant pollution rules, the attacks on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya — and it’s easy to see why it will take more than a single dinner invitation to placate them.
Some of what the Democrats crave is more regular behind-the-scenes ego massaging, which the president and his team have been notoriously stingy in giving to lawmakers from either party. (The paucity of this outreach was all the more striking from the first president since John F. Kennedy to move directly from the Capitol to the White House.)
Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Katie Beirne Fallon, the veteran Senate Democratic leadership staffer installed as the White House legislative liaison in December, are getting some credit for improvement on this score — including by reportedly scheduling 45 minutes weekly for Obama to telephone members from both parties about the few items remaining on the legislative to-do list.
Those calls — or presidential box seats in the Kennedy Center for a senator’s wedding anniversary, or a late-night West Wing tour for a congressman’s parents — may not provide any tangible salve for the partisan breach. But such niceties cannot possibly make matters any worse.
And there are plenty of such gestures that could get doled out in the two months before all of Congress comes over for supper.