Obama engages Republicans: Will it work?

Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., leave the Jefferson Hotel after a dinner with President Obama March 6, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Olivier Douliery / Pool / Getty Images

This post originally appeared on Slate.

President Obama is reaching out to Republicans. He had dinner with GOP senators Wednesday night and he had lunch with his former rival House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan Thursday afternoon. For the moment, today's breakfast is open, but perhaps Dick Cheney is free. Next week he will visit Republicans in the House and Senate.

How a president works with Congress and persuades lawmakers to do his will is key to the office. With President Obama it is a particularly fascinating topic because he came to office promising a special magic in forging new arrangements with his opponents and he set high expectations about his power to motivate the public if those inside-Washington arrangements didn't flower. Many of the evaluations of Obama's leadership seem flawed though, because they focus on whether Obama has or has not reached out sufficiently to Republicans. Embedded in the question is the idea that if you reach out, you will be successful. Nothing could be less true. It isn't that Obama is reaching out to Republicans for the first time. It's just that his past attempts at doing so haven't panned out. That's because whether a president succeeds in working with his political opponents depends on the timing, the target, and topic, not whether he is trying at all.

The aloof president is reaching out. That was the media's first gloss on the president's new robust effort at networking. He had finally embraced a Truth of Washington: You must engage your opponents and work with them. Finally he's showing leadership. Hooray!

This view is too reductionist. It's clear that President Obama is pivoting, but the question is whether he's doing so to take advantage of a new landscape or if he is finally embracing a simple truth of presidential leadership he long ignored. The answer is somewhere in between and it's still evolving, but to get a clear understanding requires a sharper definition of what it means to lead when it comes to working with the opposition in Congress.

The first step in stripping away some of the fetishism about cooperation is that reaching out to your opponents is not necessarily synonymous with leadership. If it were, Republicans who are praising Obama now would not have attacked him for making promises to engage the leadership of Iran. And if you talk to your opponents when they refuse to listen or when other strategies would bear more fruit, you're being ineffective, which is not showing good leadership at all. So it doesn't just matter who a president meets with but also whether the environment is ripe.

Effective outreach also depends on the target. During the failed effort to negotiate a grand bargain in 2011, Obama reached out about as much as possible to House Speaker John Boehner--and Boehner reached right back. They spent many hours on the phone and together, with only their mutual longing for a cigarette to bind them. Whatever lesson Obama is learning right now about the need to speak to his opponents, it isn't simply that he needs to have a conversation. He's known that for a long time and he's shown it by putting in the hours.

But the president may be learning a lesson about what kinds of Republicans he should work with. The gambit this week is to work around Republican leaders. But this isn't the first time the president has tried that either. Early in his first term, during negotiations over the stimulus package, he reached out to Sens. Grassley, Snowe, Collins, and Specter. He even got into the horse-trading business. Specter won biomedical research and voted for the stimulus. Obama agreed to adjust the alternative minimum tax as a part of the stimulus to court Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, but it didn't work. During the negotiations over health care reform, Obama tried a back-room deal to secure the support of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, but it failed after the public got wind of the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback." Obama may not be very good at trying to work Congress; he may only have done it in fits and starts, but you can't say he hasn't tried.