President Obama changed political gears last week, and decided to take a new direction in his dealings with Republicans in Congress. This "charm offensive" will either later be seen as a meaningless photo-op gesture, or a brilliant strategic maneuver on the political chessboard. Time will tell. That golf game with John Boehner didn't really gain Obama much, to put it another way. But the political winds are a-changin' in Washington (as they tend to do), and if Obama is really serious about developing personal relationships with those in the opposition party who might possibly be open to deal-cutting, this time around a charm offensive might bear some political fruit. Obama is attempting a bold plan to exploit the existing disarray in the Republican Party, and largely bypass the entire Republican congressional leadership. If it works (and even, possibly, if it fails), this will only serve to widen the chasms within the GOP right in time for the next election. That's some pretty juicy political fruit indeed.
But one key to achieving this success will be a sustained effort on Obama's part. Obama can't just have one dinner and a lunch or two and then drop the whole idea. The president is notorious for not really enjoying glad-handling members of Congress (from either party, actually) in the way that, say, a Bill Clinton enthusiastically embraced. But being president (especially with a divided Congress) pretty much requires a higher amount of back-slapping events than Obama has previously managed. He just needs to work on his follow-through a bit more, and invite these folks to dinner so many times they lose count and the news organizations lose interest in the photo-op side of the story.
If Obama can manage to keep up the charm offensive, he stands to gain big by doing so. It's really a win-win situation for Obama, when you examine possible outcomes. We're going to assume, for the sake of discussion here, that Obama is serious about this effort and that it isn't just going to wind up as a couple of weeks of photo ops for him, to be forgotten (or laughed at) later. If Obama keeps up the charm, he's got a medium-term chance for legislative success and a longer-term chance for political success.
Obama and the Republicans seem to have agreed upon one thing already -- taking the American economy hostage every few months is stupid and self-destructive for the country as a whole. This is an enormous step for the Republicans, and must be acknowledged as such. They peered over the abyss in the fiscal cliff fight, and then caved at the last minute (actually, a few hours past the last minute, but who's counting?). In January, the Republicans in the House punted the debt ceiling down the road for months with absolutely no concessions gained -- which used to be their favorite hostage to take. The sequester didn't get solved, but the sequester is a much slower train wreck than a government shutdown or a government default, so it's the least bad of the three hostages to take (at least, as far as damage to the American economy). Right now, Republicans are moving legislation weeks ahead of what could become a government shutdown, which actually (for once) may give the two houses of Congress enough time to strike some sort of deal before the last minute (oh, be still, my beating heart...). The "continuing resolution" will likely get passed on time, with both sides claiming small victories but without a whole lot of change from where we are now, post-sequester.
The other big political change since the election is that Obama has become a much tougher negotiator. He won a huge political victory on the fiscal cliff -- the first time Republicans had voted to increase income tax rates in over two decades -- and he refused to back down in the bluff-calling game of the sequester. The Barack Obama of two years ago might have quickly caved on either or both of these issues, but this time he held a lot firmer in both showdowns.
Assuming that a continuing resolution of some sort passes before the deadline and we avert a government showdown, then the real legislative battle begins -- over next year's budget. This is what Obama is laying the groundwork for now. He's not charming Republican senators to gain leverage in the continuing resolution fight, he's looking ahead to the possibility of striking the "Grand Bargain" on the budget which has eluded him so far.
If it bears legislative fruit (as opposed to political fruit, which we'll get to in a moment), it could happen with the help of only a few dozen Republicans. If some Grand Bargain is struck, with reforms to Medicare and Medicaid but also with closing tax loopholes to raise revenue, Obama will need five or six Republicans in the Senate to go along with the Democrats -- plus a few more Republicans in case of Democratic defections (some Democrats might not vote for any plan which touches Medicare and/or Medicaid). Over in the House, if Obama convinced maybe 25-30 Republicans to vote with him (again, plus whatever is needed to counterbalance Democrats voting against the plan), a Grand Bargain could actually be struck.
Notice the total absence of the Republican leadership in this equation. Well, almost-total. The way it would actually work is that the Senate would pass a bill with bipartisan support. Pressure would mount on Speaker of the House John Boehner to allow a vote on the Senate bill. If there's time, a conference committee may allow a few bits of the House Republican budget to be added (or, more likely, subtracted) from the Senate bill, but eventually Boehner would be forced to pass a budget with support from most Democrats and a minority of the Republicans voting for it. So John Boehner will have a role to play, but not much of a leadership role. John Boehner is simply not to be believed when he strikes deals with Obama, so why even bother including him in the process? While Boehner will have a minor role, though, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be entirely irrelevant. Which is why neither man was on the invitation list to Obama's dinner last week -- they're not going to be the ones driving the effort, even on the Republican side of things in Congress.
Politically, Obama's playing a much longer-term game here, and the name of that game is "Win the House back in 2014!" Republicans are a battered brand, these days. Obama would be a fool not to recognize that, or to recognize what having Nancy Pelosi wield the Speaker gavel for the last two years of his term would mean for his legacy. The beautiful thing about the charm offensive for Obama is it might be successful whether a Grand Bargain can actually be reached or not. Say some sort of deal is struck. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is going to go bananas as a direct result. The Norquistians will be in high dudgeon. Beyond the fulminating, though, Tea Partiers will start targeting establishment Republicans in primary races with even more of a vengeance than currently exists. The "Purity First, Electability Second" folks may win some of these primaries with the next wave of Todd Akins (or Christine O'Donnells) -- which could lead to some surprising pickup opportunities for Democrats in 2014. Or consider what could happen if the Grand Bargain is not struck. With a very visible charm offensive to build upon, Obama will be able to say, "once again, I bent over backwards offering a hand across the aisle, only to have the extremists in the Republican Party swat it away." If the American public is tired of extremism from the Republicans, this could wind up winning enough House districts to flip the chamber to Democratic control. Suburban voters may be key here -- people who want to see deals struck and progress made from both parties.
Obama is, once again, projecting the "adult in the room" vibe with his current charm offensive. He's got nothing to lose at this point -- he'll never be up for re-election again. The upsides look pretty good for him, and the downsides look pretty minor. Either he strikes a Grand Bargain on the budget which will be remembered along with the rest of his legislative accomplishments, or he successfully exploits the already-existing deep division and disarray in the Republican Party heading into the midterm elections. No matter which way the chips fall, this will serve to diminish the stature of both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who will be minor players in the drama, at best.
Democrats have the power to pass things through Congress if they get public opinion on their side and if they split off enough Republicans to truly use the word "bipartisan" about whatever deal they strike. Obama is setting the stage for the next few months -- months which also may contain an intraparty Republican knife-fight over immigration. Charming Republicans who want to get a few things done could be the way to win these battles in Congress. I have no idea what the chances are for legislative success at this point, but I'm pretty sure that every time Obama breaks bread with a tableful of Republicans the chances get a little better. Let's hope Obama keeps up this charm offensive and doesn't just drop the effort after a few high-profile events. As a short-term photo-op it has already (briefly) changed the Washington conversation, but as a long-term strategy it could be quite fruitful for both Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole.
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