Recent charm offensive will influence Obama legacy

We have been hearing a lot lately about President Barack Obama’s charm offensive. He has been traveling a short distance from the White House to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress, including Republicans. He now seems more interested in developing relationships and a rapport with members on both sides of the aisle whose votes he can use in the days ahead.


In short, he’s doing some schmoozing and wooing. It’s about time! One can only wonder why it has taken Obama and his political advisers inside the Oval Office so long to realize that relationships matter in Washington.

Perhaps Obama is not as quick a study as we have been led to believe. Obama is a bright man. He can deliver a speech. He possesses strong analytical skills. He is a genuine person. His heart is in the right place.

He has the best of intentions. However, Jodi Kantor, in her book The Obamas, describes the president as an elusive and introverted individual who often demonstrates an unrealistic assessment of what he can accomplish. The truth of the matter is that Obama spent far too much time during his first term performing a one-man show and far too little time recruiting a cast of characters for a blockbuster production.

Obama has exhibited little interest in building relationships with people that matter in Washington during his time in the White House. He has a mistrust of politics, does not like engaging in small talk and finds backslapping repugnant. He much prefers spending time with a small number of close friends that he accumulated prior to arriving in Washington to serve in the Senate. In his mind, he has a job to do and therefore bigger fish to fry. What he seems not to understand is that he must hook and catch the fish before he can fry them. 

Chris Matthews, a prominent political observer and television personality, has noted that Obama is more interested in cutting deals with political players in Washing-ton than he is in forging bonds with them. Obama has a tendency to use people and then move on.

Part of his problem is that, even though he served briefly in the Senate before taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he did not make it his business to get a feel for the Washington political culture and adapt to how the legislative process works. In fact, Obama was a frustrated and unhappy senator. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in their book Game Change, report that the Senate drove Obama nuts. According to Heilemann and Halperin, Sen. Obama was especially irked by the slow pace by which the Senate moves and the geriatric cast of characters doddering around the place. He spent more time pondering his options than he did cultivating colleagues.

Will President Obama’s charm offensive work? We will have to wait and see, but Bob Woodward, in his recent book The Price of Politics, reminds us that it’s too late to make friends at that point in time when you need them.

One might add that it’s too late to make friends when you need them the most,  especially in the political arena. This characterizes the situation in which Obama finds himself at the moment. His legacy is at stake, and he must deal with a Republican-controlled House.

Obama should have spent time early in his first term learning more about how Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan operated in the White House. Johnson, a liberal, was a product of the Congress. He loved the Congress and had a firsthand understanding of how to get things done in terms of the legislative process. Reagan, a conservative, was a Washington outsider from California who entered the Oval Office leading a revolution to dismantle big government and return power to the states. He had held only one elected office at the state level prior to arriving in our nation’s capital, and thus had no firsthand experience dealing with Congress. But Reagan, a former governor, learned that relationships mattered in Sacramento.

Both Johnson and Reagan made themselves accessible to members of Congress and devoted considerable time to doing the little things, like photo ops, that members of Congress appreciated. They realized that, in order to have friends to whom they could appeal when the chips were down, they had to be friends with those with the votes. Their legacies were secured in large part by their willingness to employ the “charm offensive” earlier in their presidencies.

(Don Livingston is a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. His field of expertise is the American presidency.)

Go to top