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President Barack Obama worked the room, strutting from table to table at the congressional luncheon in the Capitol’s ornate Statuary Hall and schmoozing Republicans and Democrats alike.
When he came to a table filled predominantly with House Republicans, his main rivals during his first term, he cut the tension with a joke.
Embracing House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and pointing to Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president said, “I hope you know it’s a complete coincidence that we put the chairman of the Joint Chiefs next to the House Armed Services chairman.”
Obama then made his way to Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma. “I’m hoping to find ways to work together,” Obama told him.
Indeed, the two sides have not yet found the formula to work cooperatively. But if there is ill will, it was set aside Monday, as Obama traveled to the Capitol for his second inauguration, a ritual that fills the Capitol, if only for one day, with pomp rather than partisanship.
Addressing the luncheon, Obama struck a chord of togetherness, telling the congressional leaders, Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and their families that he is confident they can have an effect for the better.
“I recognize that democracy is not always easy, and I recognize that there are profound differences in this room,” he said. “But I just want to say thank you for your service and thank your families for their service, because regardless of our political persuasions and perspectives, I know that all of us serve because we believe that we can make America [better] for future generations.”
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio bestowed on the president and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. two flags that flew over the Capitol on Monday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., meanwhile, gave the men a pair of crystal vases, one hand-etched with the Capitol, the other with the White House.
The reverence for Obama was bipartisan as well. Rules ranking member Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., posed for photos with the president. Perhaps the biggest hug was reserved for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Obama’s friend from his time in the Senate.
The luncheon went off without a hitch except for one thing — Biden almost did not make it. As his entrance was announced to the room, he was nowhere to be found. Boehner’s staff scrambled to find out where he was, all the while holding back Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and John Thune, R-S.D., from entering the room.