What's Behind Obama's 'Charm Offensive' with GOP?

WASHINGTON – President Obama, who proved unusually reluctant during his first term in office to meet with lawmakers to hammer out differences, has launched what friend and foe alike are referring to as “a charm offensive” to help drive policies more to his liking.

The president dined with 12 Republican senators at the Jefferson Hotel, about two blocks from the White House, on March 6 with the participants universally expressing positive judgments on the event -- especially since Obama picked up the tab.

The purpose of the private get-together, according to Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), one of the participants, was to “discuss the critical challenges facing our country.”

“This outreach is long overdue and if the White House is serious about addressing our fiscal crisis, growing the economy and helping Americans find jobs, then it must abandon campaign tactics and focus on working with Congress,” Coats said.

Obama met the following day with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, over lunch, resulting in what Ryan characterized as “a frank discussion” about government spending.

And the White House announced that next week the president is traveling to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate to discuss his legislative priorities.

“We have numerous challenges facing the country and Republicans have offered the president serious solutions to shrink Washington spending and grow the economy,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “And we will have an opportunity to discuss them with the president at the lunch.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House Democratic keader, said both sidesseem to be pleased” with the results thus far.

“They talked about immigration, debt limit, issues of that kind,” she said. “I think that that's always good. I think, as one who has been a leader in the Congress for a while, I always think it's very important to understand the motivation of members and what the possibilities are in terms of courage. And so I think it's important that they all get to know each other better.”  

The sudden swirl of activity doesn’t mean Obama is transforming into a 21st century version of former President Lyndon Johnson, who famously phoned lawmakers at all hours of the day and night to register his pleasure or disdain. But it does indicate a change in strategy for a president facing difficult partisan terrain on issues ranging from the budget deficit to immigration to gun violence.

Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, said Obama is actually reverting to an old strategy.

“He (Obama) engaged consistently with Congress, especially in the first two years, and consistently with Congress, including leaders of the Republican Party after the midterm elections through the summer of 2011,” Carney said. “I think there is ample data to prove that point. And he did it in numerous ways -- in small groups, telephone conversations, meetings in the Oval Office, meetings in the residence.”

Then came the showdown over the “fiscal cliff” when congressional Republicans withheld support for raising the nation’s debt limit unless the president agreed to strict budget cuts. A crisis was avoided but Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to reach a budget accommodation referred to as a “grand bargain.” Thereafter the two sides rarely spoke.