For all his renewed calls for bipartisanship, President Barack Obama is still wrestling with the same hurdle that has plagued him for two years: He has no relationships with Republicans.
The lack of a rapport between Obama and GOP lawmakers was on full display this week as Republicans pushed back against nearly every overture made by the White House to find common ground in the lame-duck session that began Monday.
After being courted for weeks by administration officials, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) unexpectedly snubbed Obama’s efforts to win his support for moving the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, citing concerns that the lame-duck agenda is too full. Kyl’s slight was followed by GOP leaders telling the White House their schedule was too busy to accommodate Obama’s invitation to meet today to discuss legislative priorities. The meeting was rescheduled for Nov. 30.
Add to the mix that Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill aimed at ensuring equal pay for women, a move the president said left him “deeply disappointed” and pointing fingers at “a partisan minority of Senators.”
It’s been a rough week for Obama, whose post-election tone of conciliation appears to have fallen flat on Capitol Hill. But Republicans say all the president has to do is get to know them better if he wants a better working relationship going forward.
“He’s got to figure out how to get people together and develop trustworthy relationships,” Sen. George Voinovich said.
The Ohio Republican predicted that Obama will have “a big problem” in the next Congress if he doesn’t start working on his ties to GOP lawmakers.
“He’s going to have to take a relationship he hasn’t nurtured and he’s going to have to turn the corner,” Voinovich said. “He’s got to repair a relationship that’s not there today.”
Voinovich, who is retiring at the end of the term, said he will “never forget” when he found out that Obama had only met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) once after he was well into his presidency. Voinovich also wondered aloud what happened to Obama’s vow during the State of the Union to meet with Hill leaders once a month.
Senior House and Senate GOP aides said they could not think of a single Republican lawmaker with a relationship with Obama, although one name floated was Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), who served in the Illinois state Legislature with Obama for four years.
Even though Roskam and Obama worked together on a committee and passed controversial bills together, the Illinois Republican lamented that the president has not reached out to him in Washington.
“I have not had much substantive discussion with the president in the past two years,” Roskam said. “He would be well-counseled to go back to the more intuitive self that he demonstrated in the state Senate.”
Former Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), who lost his seat in 2008, said one of the biggest frustrations he hears from his former GOP colleagues is that Obama just doesn’t have “people over to the White House doing the personal relations stuff.”
In addition, he said, the president needs to have some humility, something Coleman said he has yet to see. The former Senator pointed to the drubbing Democrats took on Nov. 2 and said now is the time for Obama to reflect on the message that voters sent.
“His first reaction was, ‘I didn’t communicate.’ Then there was a statement, ‘I got thumped.’ Yeah, that’s a reality, but why? He needs the humility to say, ‘Maybe something I thought is not what other people thought,’” Coleman said.
Obama does have a handful of Republicans he singles out in his speeches for their ideas, such as House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan. He has complimented Ryan for a proposal he released earlier this year aimed at reducing the deficit.
But the Wisconsin Republican, despite often getting name-dropped as a bipartisan ally, maintains that he doesn’t have much of a relationship with the president.
“Most of us don’t know the president very well, so I always try to keep an open mind ... as to what the approach of a person is going to be,” Ryan said Monday on PBS’ “Charlie Rose.”
Ryan called out Obama for treating Republicans like enemies when he is on the campaign trail, only to return to Washington in search of bipartisanship.
“He goes to our districts and says Republicans want the economy to fail so he fails politically,” he said. “I mean, that kind of talk, all these straw men and counterfactual arguments does not make it easy to cooperate and come together on the big issues of the day.”
House and Senate Democratic leadership aides said it wouldn’t matter if Obama bent over backward to have relationships with Republicans, since their No. 1 priority is to remove him from office.
“It’s hard to build relationships when those very people are calling you a socialist and praying that you’ll meet your Waterloo,” one senior Democratic aide said.
Indeed, Voinovich concedes that he has been calling Obama a socialist since Obama ran for office. But it wasn’t intended to be an insult.
“I like socialists,” he said. “They’re all great people.”