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Why congressional Democrats don’t like Obama

Sorry, Harry.
Sorry, Harry.
Chip Somodevilla

"Nearly six years into his term, with his popularity at the lowest of his presidency, Mr. Obama appears remarkably distant from his own party on Capitol Hill, with his long neglect of would-be allies catching up to him," reports the New York Times.

The Times is getting at something real: congressional Democrats admire Barack Obama and they badly want him to succeed. But they don't particularly like Barack Obama — in large part because they don't think he likes them. Hill Democrats speak wistfully of President Bill Clinton and his late-night phone calls. Clinton, they say, wanted to talk to them. Barack Obama sees them as a chore.

Obama does see socializing with Hill Democrats as a chore. But there's a lot that Obama sees as a chore and commits to anyway. The presidency, for all its power, is full of drudgery; there are ambassadors to swear in and fundraisers to attend and endless briefings on issues that the briefers don't even really care about. The reason Obama doesn't put more effort into stroking congressional Democrats is he sees it as a useless chore.

The Times article goes further than most in getting Hill Democrats on the record — or at least near the record — voicing their frustrations with Obama. But it never names a bill that didn't pass or a nominee who wasn't confirmed because Obama's doesn't spend more time on the golf course with members of Congress. The closest it comes is...not very close. "In interviews, nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers and senior congressional aides suggested that Mr. Obama's approach has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office."

This is ridiculous. There are no issues erupting at home or abroad where the problem is that House or Senate Democrats won't vote with the president. There's no legislation of importance to President Obama's legacy that would pass if only House Democrats had spent more time at the White House. I've listened to a lot of Democratic members of Congress complain about Obama's poor relationships on the Hill. Each time, my follow-up question is the same: "what would have passed if Obama had better relationships on the Hill?" Each time, the answer is the same: a shake of the head, and then, "nothing."

This is a simple reality of party polarization in the Congress: Obama doesn't need to coax recalcitrant Democrats. He's got their votes. What he doesn't have is Republican votes. Congressional Quarterly measures the percentage of votes in which members vote with their party. The resulting "party unity" index is stark:

Party unity

Congressional Quarterly

What that graph shows is that Obama enjoys more "loyalists" — at least as measured by party-line voting — than any president since at least the 1950s. For Obama's agenda, that's the measure that actually matters, and one reason he doesn't spend more time working on his relationships with congressional Democrats is he simply doesn't need to. Past presidents haven't had that luxury. Even Bill Clinton had to work to coax votes from conservative Democrats who needed to be lubricated with whiskey, earmarks, and attention. Today, those conservative Democrats are Republicans.

Parties used to be weaker, and individuals stronger, in Congress than they are today — and so individual relationships mattered more. But in 2014, party polarization does Obama's work for him. Obama's relationship with Democrats in Congress isn't particularly good, but Obama has had more support from congressional Democrats than any Democratic president in American history.

What that graph also shows, however, is that Obama faces a more united Republican Party — again, as measured by party-line voting — than any president since at least the 1950s. At various times, he's tried to fix this. He began his second term with a "charm offensive": dinners, lunches, and golf games with congressional Republicans meant to build the kind of personal relationships necessary to bridge the partisan divide and pass a budget deal or an immigration bill.

How did it work out? "G.O.P. Leaders Unswayed by Obama's ‘Charm Offensive'", reported The New York Times. The budget deal didn't pass. The immigration bill died in the House.

Obama can't get Republican votes for the same reason he doesn't need to work to get Democratic votes. It's the remorseless logic of of party polarization, and not the individual relationships the president forges with members of Congress, that drives votes. And right now, with the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate paralyzed by the filibuster, Congress is closed for business.

Congress gallup

Gallup

Congressional relations took up a lot of Obama's time in the first term, when lots of bills were passing, and quite a bit at the beginning of the second term, when there was still hope of bills passing. But there's no hope of big bills passing now. One result of Congress's inability to pass much of anything is that President Obama spends less time trying to persuade members of Congress to pass anything. This is, for members of Congress, sad. It makes them feel less important and less respected. But that's because they are, objectively, less important and and less respected — this is the least productive and least popular Congress on record.

The more self-aware among their number know it. "The White House has something in common with the rest of America, and that is disdain for Congress," Sen. Claire McCaskill told the Times. Presidents have no scarcer resource than time, and a lot of the time Obama put into working with Congress in his first term is going into finding ways to go around Congress in his second.

It might be better if Obama took the time, or had more innate interest, in forging better relationships with Democratic members of Congress. It would certainly make Democratic members of Congress happier. But it wouldn't change anything. That's in contrast to areas like foreign policy and the management of the executive branch where more presidential time and attention might actually lead to different outcomes.