As President Barack Obama struggled with his own party over trade — and failed — Washington kicked off a new round of a favorite game, WWLBJD: What would Lyndon B. Johnson do?
Couldn’t Obama have headed all this off if he’d spent more time schmoozing and arm-twisting Congress? Wouldn’t Johnson have called John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi into the Oval Office and hashed out a deal? Wouldn’t Johnson have gotten on the phone with more members and cajoled and threatened until they figured out a way to give him what he wanted?
As it happens, one of the few social engagements at which the president presses social flesh with lawmakers — the annual congressional picnic at the White House — was scheduled for Wednesday, just hours after Republican leaders appeared to rescue the Democratic president’s trade package by laying out a new legislative process.
In the White House, there’s no topic that so quickly and consistently makes heads explode as suggesting Obama needs to be more like LBJ. Events of the past week bolster their conviction that there’s nothing the president or his aides can do to make Congress less dysfunctional; even with hugely constrained ambitions, every recent small gain in Congress has come about in the ugliest way possible, from Homeland Security funding to confirming Attorney General Loretta Lynch to renewing the PATRIOT Act to steamrolling union-centric liberals on trade.
Democrats who long for LBJ need to wake up and realize that we are 40 years into the future, and that’s not the way Washington works anymore, said one Democrat close to Obama. Anyone who thinks that a few more rounds of golf or a few more cocktails would change the way Congress functions has a very shallow understanding of Capitol Hill.
Still, Obama kept up his social obligations. With his wife and daughters touring Europe, he had to deal solo with having hundreds of members of Congress and their families troop into his backyard for the annual congressional picnic, and appear to want them there.
Republicans and Democrats lined up for burgers and ice cream — even Pelosi, who’d turned on him at the end and voted against the package.
Obama warned them he couldn’t do selfies with everyone. Asked for a kiss by someone in the crowd, he said, A kiss, I can give you.
He didn’t mention trade. But he said other big problems like climate change could be solved.
Obviously democracy can be contentious, Obama said. There are times when people have deep, principled disagreements. But I hope that events like today remind us that ultimately we’re all on the same team. And that’s the American team.
Niceties aside, Obama isn’t necessarily who Congress wants him to be, and lawmakers aren’t necessarily who Obama wants them to be. He’s rarely able to hide his disdain for a House and Senate that include people he thinks aren’t too bright (many) or are just practicing knee-jerk politics (even more). And many of them are not able, especially in private, to hide just what an out of touch jerk they think he is.
The president has functionally ignored Democrats in Congress for seven years, said one House Democrat, taking a seat off the floor between votes on Wednesday afternoon before the picnic. When he needs votes, it’s all that much harder to get those votes, when you feel like you’ve been ignored.
So, would last week’s trade vote have gone better if Obama had spent his presidency prioritizing schmoozing? Views differed.
I don’t know that he would have prevailed, but it would have been a closer vote, the Democrat said.
He couldn’t be like LBJ even if he wanted to,’’ said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), who was one of the main champions of trade on the Hill. There’s no earmarks or anything of that nature, Meeks said. LBJ was able to call folks in, figure out what they needed, and there was a compromise.
Obama often seems about as interested in legislative sausage-making as he is in actual sausage-making. Then again, this is the same new, two-chamber Republican majority that couldn’t fund DHS or renew the PATRIOT Act. They’ve got the largest margin of any Republican-led Congress since Herbert Hoover, but passing yet another traditional Republican priority entailed weeks of Boehner squirming and scolding Democrats for not doing what he couldn’t get significant numbers of his own members to do.
Members ducked Obama’s individual lobbying calls. He made a last-minute personal visit to meet with Democrats and make his case, arguing that their vote was about him and his presidency. His implicit warning to his own party that he’d negotiate a better trade deal than Hillary Clinton or one of the Republicans went nowhere. His argument that his record proves they should trust him to negotiate a good trade deal moved nearly no one.
Members who were around in the 1990s also heard a lot of promises from Bill Clinton about the North American Free Trade Agreement that they say are a big part of the reason why they’re voting no this time around. But at least Clinton used to call them.
Years of drying up the well left Obama little to draw on when he really needed it.
Things probably didn’t need to descend to quite to this level of emergency salvage, Meeks said.
Do I think that the president could have engaged a little earlier? Probably. That would have been a little more helpful, Meeks said.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) — despite being a no vote on trade himself — called all the LBJ talk selective historical interpretation.
In fairness, LBJ had a Democratic majority in the House of something like 300 people, so there is that slight difference that President Obama has to deal with, said Israel, an amateur historian and a member of the House leadership team. I appreciate the sentiment, but there is something to be said for actual numbers.
And yet: House Democrats piled into the elevators in the Capitol after Wednesday’s votes asking one another who was headed over to the White House later for the picnic, and which children or other family members they were bringing. Most of them hadn’t been over since the holiday party, or since last year’s picnic. For all of their grumbling, they were looking forward to it. Some who voted no on trade last week joked that they’d need to avoid eye contact with the president, but that wasn’t going to keep them away from the burgers and the artisan pickles out of the White House garden.
They included Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who actually served with Johnson, voted against the trade deal and still remains an Obama fan.
Everybody is like themselves. He could be a little more like John Kennedy. He could be a little more like Hubert Humphrey. Obama’s Obama. And it’s a cool Obama, too, Conyers said. It was not only a different world, but he’s not LBJ. If he had been LBJ, a lot of things would be different.
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