Washington's ability to trust, and be trusted

As distrust abounds between the GOP and Obama, and between Americans and government, leaders must relearn the ways that trust can be restored.

Speaker of the House John Boehner walks to a news conference on Capitol Hill Feb. 6 to say lack of GOP trust in President Obama will make it difficult to pass immigration reforms.

Anyone seeking an object lesson on the difficulty of restoring trust need look no further than today’s Washington. On a number of fronts, from basic governance to political dealmaking, distrust of leaders – and between leaders – has outpaced an ability to overcome it.

On Thursday, for example, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said the GOP majority was unlikely to pass an immigration bill because of “widespread doubt” that the Obama administration could be trusted to enforce immigration laws – despite President Obama’s record on deportations and stronger border security.

Both Congress and Mr. Obama also face deep public distrust about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance – and not only among Americans. The president has scrambled to patch up relations with Germany after reports of the NSA tapping the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Only 5 percent of Germans now believe Obama’s promise to stop such eavesdropping. Secretary of State John Kerry went to Berlin last week to try to make amends.

In his State of the Union message last month, Obama talked a lot about trust. On the NSA snooping, he said, “it is not enough for leaders to say ‘trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect.’ ” So now he’s trying to make solid reforms.

More generally, he made a pledge – much like his speeches as a candidate in 2008 – to rebuild “the trust of the people who sent us here.”

To be sure, Congress and Obama do have a recent track record of getting along. A giant farm bill has passed Congress. And in December, a temporary budget bill was approved to keep the federal government going for another year. But most other legislation has stalled.

In any climate of distrust, actions must speak more loudly than words. The president, for example, is not simply trusting Iran in a deal signed in November. The pact includes concrete steps to alter the Iranian nuclear program. “There’s nothing that we’re doing that is based on trust,” says Mr. Kerry. “Everything that we’re doing is based on verification, on specific steps.”

Action also speaks loudly in reform of the Internal Revenue Service. The agency’s targeting of certain groups based on their political views has led a new commissioner, John Koskinen, to pledge that “the proof will be in the pudding” in winning back the public’s trust in an evenhanded IRS.

Trust in Congress is at a historic low. And nearly two-thirds of independent voters now disapprove of Obama’s handling of his job as president. A poll last year found more than half of Americans do not believe the president is “honest and trustworthy.” Much of the current distrust is caused by the fumbled start to Obamacare sign-ups and a reversal of the president’s pledge that Americans can keep their current health insurance.

Recovery from mistrust can take many forms. Offering sincere apologies for mistakes is one way. Making amends helps. Avoiding promises that may not be kept is another.

Trust relies to a large degree on mutual empathy. In Washington, where power is fragmented and personal relationships are often missing, empathy must be consciously built up.

The now-famed negotiator George Mitchell tells a story of the day he was elected as Senate majority leader in 1994 and reached out to minority leader Bob Dole. He went to Mr. Dole’s office and made this promise: “I’ll never embarrass you, I won’t insult you, I’ll never surprise you.”

“We shook hands and for six years, I as majority leader and he as minority leader, never once did a harsh word pass between us in public or in private,” Mr. Mitchell told Charlie Rose in an interview last year.

Such lessons must be remembered in today’s Washington. Once lost, trust takes hard work to restore.

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