Why Obama is on charm offensive with Democrats

President Obama spent quality time this week at the off-site retreats of his own party's congressional caucuses. He needs to do more of this, analysts say.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama gestures during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference Thursday.

President Obama has spent the past two days wooing Democrats from both the House and Senate as he forges ahead on his ambitious second-term agenda, starting with gun control, immigration reform, and economic recovery.

The president’s remarks Thursday to House Democrats at an off-site retreat tracked many of the themes he struck during his reelection campaign and in last month’s inaugural address, and plans to reinforce, he said, in his State of the Union address next Tuesday.

“What you'll hear from me next week – I'm going to be talking about making sure that we're focused on job creation here in the United States of America,” Mr. Obama told the House Democrats, gathered in Leesburg, Va.

But more important than what he said was the fact that he was there at all. Obama’s visit Thursday followed a similar two-hour meeting the day before with Senate Democrats in Annapolis, Md. At both events, in addition to making remarks, he also took questions and worked the room, away from the media.

By making these visits, Obama was reinforcing a truism about the presidency: Rallying your own troops be can just as important as reaching out to the other side, particularly when at least one chamber is in the other party’s hands. And you can’t always count on members of your own party to be there for you.

During his first term, Obama faced criticism for being aloof and not reaching out to either side of the aisle, at times hurting his own cause.

In his first two years in office, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama won significant legislative victories – including the biggest economic stimulus package in history, health-care reform, and financial reform. But the conservative backlash was fierce, and in the 2010 midterms, the Republicans swept into power in the House. Gridlock has stymied action since, exacerbated by Obama’s lack of close relationships on Capitol Hill, analysts say.

“Wooing of caucuses is something he didn’t do much in his first term, and it hurt him,” says Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Members of his own party felt very disconnected from him. I think in the second term, with some big agenda items, the White House has decided it’s time to engage and actively work those groups.”

One first-term example, she says, where some more schmoozing with Capitol Hill allies could have helped him avoid political and economic damage: the messy debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011, which led to the downgrading of the nation’s credit rating.

This week’s charm offensive at the two retreats is a start, Ms. Duffy says, but “if that’s all he does, then he’s not wooing his caucus.”

Obama is well aware of the criticism that he’s too insular, but he says he doesn’t buy it. When the subject came up at a press conference last month, he pushed back: “Most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party.”

He attributed the “paralysis” in Washington to stark differences in policy with the Republicans.

But at his remarks on Thursday, he acknowledged that at times there can be problems with fellow Democrats. Looking ahead to the next four years, he said he expects frustrations.

“There will be times where you guys are mad at me, and I'll occasionally read about it,” he said. Then he segued into a pep talk: “As long as we keep in mind why we came here in the first place ... I have no doubt that we will continue the extraordinary progress that we've made already.”

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