WASHINGTON -- It's been fairly well documented that relations between the Obama administration and Capitol Hill have been a bit frosty. How they got to that point is harder to discern.
Conventional wisdom would say that a number of large missteps are to blame: The inability to anticipate the 2010 elections, the abrupt turn toward deficit reduction, the deal on the Bush tax cuts, a failure to schmooze, all contributed to the fissures.
But in his new memoir, Blessed Experiences, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) shows how the small gestures -- a discordant statement, an exclusion from negotiations, a tinkering of a law -- also cause damage.
Clyburn's book is by no means about his relationship with the Obama administration. The vast majority of it is devoted to his own story: The college student who was jailed during protests, the classroom teacher who fought to get college scholarships for needy students, the organizer who helped with hospital and garbage worker strikes, the political operative and, ultimately, the politician himself.
Even when he writes about Obama, it is usually in glowing terms. Clyburn recounts, for example, how he earned the enmity of Bill Clinton during the South Carolina Democratic primary in 2008 because the former president believed he was tipping the scales against his wife.
“If you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one," Clinton said on a voicemail to Clyburn, as Clyburn details in his book. “He was accusing me of sabotaging his wife’s campaign in South Carolina," Clyburn wrote.
When Obama went on to win South Carolina, and then the Democratic primary, and then the general election, Clyburn was elated. The president, he writes, was not just "the most successful black politician America has ever known" but was also "my kind of guy."
But political relationships are complicated. And the natural good will that existed between the two men was tested not just by complex, trying legislative battles but also by smaller quips and slights.
The abrupt firing of U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod after a doctored video of her surfaced that seemed to show her saying she didn't want to help white farmers (later proven to be misleadingly edited) provided early kindling. Clyburn was enraged at the move and didn't hold back when asked about it by the press.
“I don’t think a single black person was consulted before Shirley Sherrod was fired," he told The New York Times.
Needless to say, Obama wasn't exactly thrilled with his comments. Clyburn writes in his book that "several days after Shirley Sherrod’s firing" he was "invited to the White House for a one-on-one conversation with the president."
"We discussed the incident in some detail, as well as how we might avoid such public clashes in the future," he wrote. "I had been harboring some sentiment about what I considered the president’s rightward leanings anyhow, and I told him that I felt compelled to continue speaking openly and candidly to the press. Without being the least bit argumentative, he let me know that such would be fine with him. 'Just one request, though,' he said, 'speak with me first.'"
One contributor to the friction between Clyburn and the White House was the person occupying the post of chief of staff.
“Everybody in our caucus was aware of the tension between Rahm and me,” Clyburn wrote of his relationship with Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago. The tension dated back to 2006, when Clyburn and Emanuel both entertained the idea of running for the post of Democratic whip. Clyburn, in his book, accused Emanuel and his allies of "subtly playing the race card" by suggesting that, "as a black southerner, I did not have the ability to raise money." Eventually Emanuel bowed out, leaving the post to Clyburn.
With Emanuel in the White House, the tensions resurfaced. During the crafting of the health care law, for example, Clyburn found himself excluded from the White House strategy sessions despite being a member of leadership.
“I had long since gotten used to the fact that whenever it was possible for me to be excluded from a White House meeting, the president’s chief of staff would make certain I was," he wrote.
As the law got watered down to accommodate the concerns of Republicans (none of whom backed the bill) and moderate Democrats, irritation mounted. The dropping of a national exchange in favor of state-based ones was "insulting," Clyburn wrote. The continuous focus on bending the cost curve in terms of health spending was misguided, he added. "My interests were whether or not we paid sufficient attention to affordability and accessibility. How much funding could we provide to community health centers and prevention programs? Everybody knew that I would be relentless and vocal in my support for both, and that did not sit too well with some in the Obama administration.”
The passage of the health care law is credited in Clyburn's memoir to the doggedness of the president and certain senators after the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts. But the book spends little time reflecting on the historic nature of that legislative win. Instead, it turns quickly to the president's shift toward deficit reduction in the wake of the Affordable Care Act's passage. Here too, it's a combination of macro-level movements and micro-level missteps that show how the relationship between the administration and the Hill can sour.
Clyburn, unlike other Democrats, wasn't particularly disturbed by the shift in focus at that point in time. In fact, he took a lot of satisfaction out of his appointment to a deficit-reduction committee -- spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden. But when lawmakers were called into the White House on June 2, 2011, to meet the president about the committee's mission statement, things grew discomforting, he says.
"It became clear from various members’ comments that there was a lot of anxiety among them about the Biden Group’s deliberations," Clyburn wrote. "And it was not helpful to the anxiety I was feeling when the president’s comments and references in that meeting seemed to indicate that he was not aware that I was a member of the Biden Group."
The Biden group would ultimately fail to produce a deficit reduction plan facilitating the grand-bargain negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that failed as well.