Barack Obama: why he's inviting Boehner and friends to White House

Barack Obama said he wants the Nov. 18 meeting with congressional leaders to focus on the economy, tax cuts, unemployment insurance, and passage of a new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters after meeting with his staff and Cabinet members in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, on Nov. 4.

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he’s inviting Republican and Democratic congressional leaders over to his place (that’s the White House) on Nov. 18 for talks.

Why does he want to host such a meeting so soon after bruising losses in the 2010 midterm elections? Because he’s trying to prove that he’s still relevant.

By taking the initiative and announcing this tentative get-together for the first week of the congressional lame-duck session, Mr. Obama has a chance to at least appear to be still driving Washington’s policy agenda. The president told reporters Thursday that he wants discussion to focus on the economy, tax cuts, unemployment insurance, and passage of a new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.

“This is going to be a meeting in which I want us to talk substantively about how we can move the American people’s agenda forward,” said Obama. “It’s not just going to be a photo op. Hopefully, it may spill over into dinner.”

Obama also announced that he’s invited newly elected Republican and Democratic governors to the White House for a Dec. 2 get-acquainted meeting. So in general, the president is doing his best to act the role of national paterfamilias, apparently.

Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner has been getting a lot of attention in the past couple of days, so maybe the White House is trying to regain the spotlight. Presidents can be touchy that way. Remember what Bill Clinton ended up doing after he and his party got body-slammed in the 1994 midterms?

Republicans had gained control of both House and Senate then, and Speaker Newt Gingrich and was very much ascendant. At a news conference on April 18th, 1995, Mr. Clinton finally said, “The president is still relevant here.”

Presidents are always relevant in a way, just by virtue of the office, and Clinton’s words sounded a touch self-referential. Some critics called them whiny. This is just the sort of thing that Obama probably wants to avoid.

Also, by being the first to reach out to the other side, Obama at the least gets to look as if he’s attempting the bipartisan outreach that voters say they want. In contrast, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday is scheduled to deliver a speech to the Heritage Foundation that calls on the White House to move toward the GOP or expect no help from its lawmakers.

Whether newly empowered Republican leaders will consider Obama’s meeting proposal as bipartisan outreach is another matter. Representative Boehner was not fond of February’s White House seminar on health-care reform, which also was billed as a bipartisan conference where both parties could consider the other’s ideas.

Boehner at the time accused the administration of “engaging a largely handpicked audience in a televised ‘dialogue’ according to a script they have largely pre-determined.”

It’s also likely that Obama wants to make an impression of some sort on the national dialogue before he leaves Friday for a four-country trip to Asia that will last until Nov. 14. Absent some similar proposal, the president might have appeared to be just fleeing his troubles for foreign climes, while leaving the Washington policy field to the GOP.

“What’s going to be critically important over the coming months is going to be creating a better working relationship between this White House and the congressional leadership that’s coming in,” said Obama.

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