Obama, McConnell: Perfect Strangers

Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:35pm

If it seems as if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Barack Obama hardly know each other, that’s because it’s true.

The last time McConnell and Obama spoke privately, one-on-one, was prior to Obama’s January 2009 inauguration, sources said.

Despite McConnell’s position as the most senior elected Republican in the country, the leader of the “loyal opposition” never fields calls from the commander in chief and sees him only at White House meetings with Democratic Senators present.

The situation leaves many Republicans scratching their heads about how far into the future Obama has been looking.

“I think if you look at successful presidencies, most of them have gone across the aisle to the other party, even when the other party was not a significant majority but in the minority,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a close adviser to McConnell who briefly flirted with joining Obama’s Cabinet. “You never know when you’re going to need the other party for something, and the other party may be there to help you, but if you don’t have that personal relationship with the leadership then it’s harder to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need you here, and this is why.'”

The day when Obama may need McConnell could come as soon as Nov. 3, several Republicans suggested. The anti-incumbent mood of the country could hand McConnell five to eight seats when voters go to the polls, some pundits have predicted. That would give McConnell and Senate Republicans far more power than they have now — just 41 votes — to block the president’s far-reaching agenda.

It’s not as if there is bad blood between Obama and McConnell, sources in both parties cautioned. The two men just don’t have any kind of rapport, positive or negative.

Obama and McConnell never developed a personal bond during the president’s brief four-year stint in the Senate, sources said. McConnell was on the GOP leadership track, while Obama was on a presidential track that kept him out of the chamber for most of the last two years he served.

Since Obama became president, that situation has not changed. McConnell dutifully attends the regular meetings Obama has with the bicameral Congressional leadership, but sources said there is virtually no interaction on a daily or weekly basis beyond the staff level.

In those White House meetings, McConnell appears to subtly needle the president by emphasizing that for all of Obama’s rhetoric about bipartisanship, his own actions and that of his staff speak to a more partisan strategy.

At an April 21 meeting on the upcoming Supreme Court nomination, McConnell listened to Obama talk about the need for cooperation on whichever nominee he appointed. McConnell then pointedly told Obama, Reid, Vice President Joseph Biden, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that among those assembled, “There are only two of us in this room right now who have not filibustered a Supreme Court nominee, and that’s me and Jeff Sessions,” said one source familiar with the meeting.

McConnell on April 25 repeated a similar line in an interview with Fox News, leaving out the fact that he had expressed that sentiment to the president himself. McConnell was referring to the January 2006 vote to invoke cloture on, or beat back an attempted Democratic filibuster of, now-Justice Samuel Alito. Obama, Biden, Reid and Leahy all voted to block Alito’s installment on the high court.

Though they acknowledge phone lines run both ways, Republican sources said they believe it is incumbent on the president to reach out to the minority, not the other way around. Democrats didn’t disagree, but they said McConnell has pursued a partisan strategy to deny the president any accomplishments.

“One of the disadvantages of a scorched-earth strategy is it makes having drinks [together] a little hot,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

But had Obama started courting McConnell early in his presidency, one senior GOP source suggested, the president might have gotten more cooperation or behind-the-scenes assistance from him.

When the Senate voted earlier this year on establishing a debt commission, the senior source said McConnell might have been willing to point Obama in the direction of rank-and-file Republicans who might vote to approve the board, even though McConnell himself was publicly opposing it. After all, the source pointed out, the Minority Leader was already expecting massive GOP defections on the vote and was not necessarily ideologically against the proposal.

As it turned out, several GOP Senators who had been supportive of the commission reversed themselves, and the amendment fell seven votes short of the 60 needed for adoption.

GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said he questions the president’s tack, noting that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s close relationship with 1960s-era Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) helped get important civil rights legislation passed.

“What I question is the failure to use the Senate as a consensus-building mechanism to pass important legislation, make it better and gain widespread support for it in the country. That hasn’t happened,” Alexander said.

Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) added, “My impression is that at least with Democrats in control up here with the big margins that they have, that they primarily work with the other side to get the things done that they need to get done.”

Asked about his relationship with the president, McConnell declined to comment this week. The White House also declined comment.

Despite Obama’s lack of outreach to McConnell — as well as to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) — Obama still gets tremendous credit with the public for his bipartisan efforts. A February Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of Americans believed that Obama would “make a sincere effort to work with Republicans” on health care reform. Only 41 percent expected Republicans to do the same.

Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also does not appear to have forged strong personal relationships with Democratic Minority Leaders.

Bush’s relationship with former Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) was “not close, but it was cordial,” said a former Bush administration official. However, Daschle was only Minority Leader for six months before a party switch handed control of the chamber to Democrats, making him the Majority Leader.

Though current Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had a frosty personal relationship with Bush and fielded few calls from him during his four years in the minority, Reid got along well with Bush’s chiefs of staff, Andy Card and Josh Bolten. In contrast, McConnell at a recent White House meeting openly blamed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for the breakdown in bipartisanship on financial regulation legislation.

Still, Bush worked the margins more often, just as Obama does. Bush officials said the president worked Democratic swing votes particularly vigorously. For example, top targets were often then-Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Obama himself often calls or meets with GOP centrists, such as Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and also has frequently requested meetings with individual rank-and-file Republicans, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) or Bob Corker (Tenn.).

Bush and Obama had the luck of working with majorities of their own parties, while Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton largely worked with opposition majorities.