One criticism of the president that permeated the nonstop socializing around the inauguration was that a lack of socializing by Barack Obama is to blame for much of the partisan rancor crippling Washington.
If the president would have more parties with members of Congress, the argument goes, the appetite for going over a fiscal cliff just for the fun of it would be replaced by a lofty spirit of cooperation.
It isn’t going to happen, and maybe it shouldn’t. We exaggerate the value of such social events. And, by the way, Obama early on did a lot of having people over to watch sporting events or picnic on the South Lawn. As he said at a recent news conference in answer to a question about the growing criticism of his isolation: He builds it, they come, but the next day they trash him anyway.
Watching the Obamas during the inaugural parade made clear why he has chosen evenings with his wife and daughters over evenings with Congress. A more comfortable foursome you’re unlikely to find.
The president recently lamented that his 14-year-old already doesn’t have time for the card games they used to play, the cry of parents everywhere about teenagers soon to be driving, dating and dreaming of college. In the hours they sat together on Inauguration Day, the girls were fully engaged with their parents — they giggled, got their parents to kiss for photos and boogied to the passing bands. There’s a lot you can fake in politics, but it would be hard to get your kids to rock to parade music with mom and dad.
The balls told a story, too. Obama may have mugged for the cameras at the Commander-in-Chief Ball, but it wasn’t the first time he sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to Michelle. We’ve had so many unhappy marriages in the White House that we underestimate the impact of a happy one.
What we do exaggerate is what having people over can do. We look at the marble busts in the Capitol Rotunda and see beating hearts where actually there rested organs of stone. The Founding Fathers spent plenty of time together — their families weren’t with them — and wanted to shoot one another. We romanticized John F. Kennedy’s Camelot after it ended abruptly as a place where legislators would have slapped backs or traded horses before after-dinner concerts featuring Pablo Casals.
Listen to the tapes if you think Lyndon Johnson got his way by forming relationships. He wasted hours sweet-talking his opponents but succeeded in the end by twisting their arms until they cried for mercy. The vaunted relationship between the Irishmen Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan? When the going got tough on reforming Social Security, they didn’t reach an agreement over an after-hours whiskey. They punted to a commission.
The denizens of Washington thought that the Obamas would be an antidote to the Arkansas hick Bill Clinton — who preferred barbecue and Diet Coke to Georgetown dinner parties — and to the cowboy ethos of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But they didn’t bank on a suburban dad who would rather eat at home above the store than join House Speaker John Boehner on the Truman balcony for a glass of merlot and a Camel Ultra Light.
Of course, it wasn’t Obama’s failure to hang out with Boehner that doomed last year’s grand bargain on deficit reduction, but it’s a comfort to Republicans to say that it was. If having people over for the evening is such an essential requirement, then we shouldn’t elect presidents whose tenure in government coincides with their peak child-rearing years.
Obama tried to quiet the growing chorus of voices saying that more partying would soften the sharp policy differences. He said that he has a fine time with members of Congress when they come to the White House, but that doesn’t stop them from “blasting me for being a big-spending socialist,” or, he could have added, questioning his citizenship. When Boehner came to the White House Christmas party, he left without shaking hands with the first couple.
Part of the reason there are many fewer relationships these days is that so few members bring their families to Washington (that was a rare sighting of Boehner’s wife at the inaugural lunch). Members work three days and then fly home to raise funds. The possibility of friendships disappeared long before Obama decided to socialize with friends he already had and spend quality time with his family.
In his memoir of the Clinton administration, David Gergen wrote that he could tell when Clinton had a fight with Hillary. The president would arrive in the West Wing red-faced and fit to be tied. It would take hours for him to reach equilibrium. Washington can resent the “me time” required to have a stable and happy inner life, but Obama gets such high marks from the public on temperament in part because he isn’t beset by the angst that comes from unhappiness.
Obama made very nice at the lunch with Congress after he was inaugurated. It didn’t stop Republicans from blasting the speech he had just given. If I were on Capitol Hill, I wouldn’t be waiting for a call to join the president for beer and pretzels on Super Bowl Sunday.
Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.