Obama’s Charm School Is in Session

Posted August 4, 2009 at 6:19pm

President Barack Obama is wading deeper into the health care debate, hosting dozens of lawmakers at the White House since the middle of July in an outburst of personal presidential diplomacy designed to prod legislation toward a vote.

But the results of the Obama charm offensive have been mixed, with some lawmakers emerging from White House sessions primed for action while others remained unswayed.

In the first category were Senate Democratic leaders who Tuesday seemed almost giddy as they stood before the microphones of the West Wing after a lunch meeting between Obama and the Democratic Conference. Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) made clear that the president had inspired them to drive a health care bill across the finish line this year.

“The president didn’t get one standing ovation, but several of them,— Reid said. “He was really — kind of reminded me of the days when I was an athlete and the coach was giving you a pep talk before the game. You came out of that pep talk that the coach gave you ready to take on the world. We’re ready to take on the world.—

Baucus was equally enthusiastic.

“It was a, really, a wonderful meeting, led by a terrific man, our president, Barack Obama,— Baucus said. “And one of the Senators was saying to me as we walked out, You know, it’s just so wonderful to hear him speak,’— Baucus continued. “You know, it’s like a symphony. It’s like just a great meal. He is so good. He just has it together. He has all the right reasons.—

A White House source said Obama worked his message to Senate Democrats that they must move on health care — his top domestic priority — because of their shared political fates.

“He said his success is directly linked to theirs and their success is directly linked to his,— this source said. “He told them the American people want to see us make progress on priorities that are important to them.—

Obama appeared to score some success during a White House effort two weeks ago to broker a deal between the moderate Blue Dogs and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Obama was in for about an hour on a session that included Waxman and Blue Dog health care point man Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.). Aides led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel continued the discussion after Obama left.

[IMGCAP(1)]The result was a cautiously optimistic assessment by Waxman and Ross on the White House driveway. Though talks temporarily broke down after they returned to Capitol Hill, a deal was struck in the end, and the committee passed the legislation. The plan is to consider it on the floor in September.

Obama in recent days and weeks has also huddled at the White House to talk health care with other key Democrats, including Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Evan Bayh (Ind.); Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.); House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.); and House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.). After a session last month, Pelosi could be found publicly leading the charge for fast action in the House, and Rangel passed a bill out of his committee.

But Obama appears to have had less success with the Republicans who have trooped up the White House driveway.

Most notably, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) made clear after a July 16 one-on-one session with Obama that she had resisted the president’s entreaties to set a deadline for a bipartisan deal on legislation in the Finance Committee. Obama at the time was still hopeful of getting the legislation to the Senate floor by the August recess.

Speaking to reporters after the session, Snowe insisted the committee “shouldn’t be constrained by an artificial timetable.—

A July 15 gathering with Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) also apparently yielded little progress. Collins politely described the session as “candid,— while Murkowski indicated the Republicans had viewed the meeting as a chance to express concerns.

“It was a good opportunity for the four of us to express our concerns with the direction that health care reform has taken in the Senate, and the President listened,— Murkowski said in a statement. “We raised a number of issues, including how quickly the Senate is moving on a health bill that would raise taxes on small businesses, and modeling a new federal health plan on our broken Medicare system.—