The Presidential Charm Offensive

The president’s dinner with Senate Republicans, not to mention lunch with Paul Ryan, has prompted mostly complimentary coverage on his efforts to press the “re-set” button with congressional Republicans. Wonkbook even headlined its set of links to that coverage with the I-think-mostly-nonsardonic query “Is Washington suddenly working again?”

In that vein, Ezra Klein rightly points out that “If the White House is going to be able to get anything done, it needs to close the gap between the Republican Party’s imaginary Obama and the actual Obama.” Klein’s recounting of GOP legislators’ outright ignorance of some of the president’s proposed policy concessions (e.g., moving to chained CPI) is intriguing. Can White House press secretary Jay Carney’s speculation regarding “Republican leaders [who] insist the President doesn’t have a plan” be right?—to wit, “perhaps they don’t have the Internet in those offices.”

Overall, though, as Matt Yglesias tweeted – sardonically for sure, this time – “political scientists are going to have a lot of egg on their faces when a single dinner party ends all this polarization.” Indeed so. Obama’s willingness to pick up the tab does mean the event proves a different unlikely thing: that there is such a thing as a free dinner. But as I’ve argued here before (and see George Edwards’ comments along with mine in today’s NYT), the contours of presidential legislative success are set by factors outside the president’s immediate control. Lyndon Johnson is famous for his “treatment” of recalcitrant legislators, mixing substantive argument, pleading, and bullying in rapid-fire fashion:



Yet by the end of his term, as JFK aide Ken O’Donnell later put it in an oral history, Johnson “couldn’t get Mother’s Day through” – that is, he had so little influence that he would have failed to obtain even a congressional resolution saluting our nation’s moms. Why? Johnson’s skill set hadn’t changed. But the makeup of Congress die: in the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate (plus eight governorships for good measure.)

And yet even O’Donnell’s gibe must be modified – in 1968, for instance, Johnson was able to push through the third of his major civil rights laws, the Fair Housing Act. Why? Events again – this time, the legislative window opened by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of that year.

To be sure, even if charm works only at the margins, should close calls arise, those margins might matter. And as Klein continues, “Even if the odds of the charm-and-information offensive working are slim, they’re better than the odds of the campaign offensive working.”  This pivots to another area well-studied in the presidency subfield: political scientists have found little evidence that the “going public” strategy of whipping up public opinion to sway legislative roll calls has worked, at least in a systematic way. Sometimes, as with Ronald Reagan in 1981, the exception seems to prove the rule – but even then, by the time his tax votes came around, Reagan was riding a wave of public adulation following his remarkable recovery from his own would-be assassin’s bullet. There are conditions under which presidents can lead public opinion, Brandon Rottinghaus’s The Provisional Pulpit (p. 9) suggests, for instance “when they continuously push the issue in public, when their approval rating is higher…, while delivering speeches on television from the seat of presidential power, and when the public is persuadable…”  But even then, linking shifts in opinion back to changes in the congressional decision making calculus is hardly automatic.

7 Responses to The Presidential Charm Offensive

  1. RobC March 8, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    Does anybody know why an expensive meal paid for by the President personally (i.e., not by the Federal Government), in a hotel restaurant private room (i.e., not in his personal residence), doesn’t violate congressional gift rules? I’m not expecting anybody to file an ethics complaint, of course, but I can’t help wondering.

  2. John Sides March 8, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Gosh, what to pick from the list of exceptions in that pdf on gift rules? How about #4: “personal hospitality.” (They’re all “personal friends,” right? right?) If not how about the “personal hospitality” exemption in #17? Or Obama might prefer #13: “training in the interest of Congress.”

  3. RobC March 8, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    I love the idea of categorizing it as under #13, though if it’s kosher for the President to treat this kind of entertainment as training, why wouldn’t it be kosher for a corporation or its CEO to do the same? Because it wasn’t in the President’s personal residence, I don’t think #17 would apply. If the exemption for personal friends (#4) applies, again that broad an interpretation would essentially eviscerate the rules, because congressmen are everybody’s dear personal friends. This gedankenexperiment gives a sense of how strict the 2007 rules actually are, if applied rigorously.

  4. Andrew Rudalevige March 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I have to confess this hadn’t occurred to me – thanks, RobC! Perhaps it’s even worse: after all, the gift ban applies unless the “gift is not offered under circumstances that might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of their governmental duties.” Since the whole point is to influence that performance this could be problematic – though on the other hand since “reasonable persons” have discovered that no such influence takes place, perhaps the president is off the hook! Or, since #6 in the list of exceptions says “Gifts from another Member or employee of Congress” are OK, maybe (under the Dick Cheney interpretation of the VP’s governmental location) maybe Obama just dumped the bill on Joe Biden…

    • RobC March 9, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

      It’s very possible, of course, that everybody involved is ignoring the rules. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet that despite the news reports that the President picked up the check, he didn’t pick it up personally but instead either used a White House credit card or received reimbursement from the White House entertainment account. In that event, the exception in #16 (anything paid for by the Federal government) should apply. Anyway, that’s the hypothesis that lets me sleep soundly at night.

      Now, about the Administration’s violation of the law requiring a budget to be submitted by the first Monday in February . . .

      • Andrew Rudalevige March 10, 2013 at 1:09 am #

        You have just uncovered the topic of my next post…

  5. Carlos Rivera May 17, 2013 at 12:04 am #

    Is there any data out there on the influence that a president’s government/political communication strategy has on her/his approval ratings? I would really appreciate some information

    Kind regards