WASHINGTON — Political and societal spheres in Washington, D.C., are a demanding lot. For White House occupants it’s simply not enough to save the world and solve all of America’s ailments — presidents are also expected to wine, dine, and feign friendships.
At Monday’s surprise press conference (see press conference coverage), the president took questions about the debt ceiling, to which he offered countless analogies, as well as questions about his plans to curtail gun violence. Then there was the question, which seemed to come out of left field, about why President Obama wasn’t hobnobbing enough. And if it seemed like nitpicking that the leader of the free world wasn’t picnicking enough, the president actually acknowledged that he hadn’t been hitting the social circuit to everyone’s liking:
“With respect to this ‘truism’ about me not socializing enough and patting folks on the back and all that stuff — most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party. And the truth is when I was in the Senate, I had great relationships over there, and up until that point that I became president this was not an accusation that you heard very frequently.”
The president explained that he was aware that some in the social circuit cry that the Obamas don’t want to “come out and play,” as it were. “I think that’s sometimes interpreted as, you know, me not wanting to, you know be out there slapping backs and wheeling and dealing,” the president said. “That really has more to do with just the stage we are in our lives.”
Presidents have long been expected to rub elbows with friends and foes to grease the legislative wheels, but how much does it actually matter?
From dignitaries noshing with President Kennedy to delegates gnashing their teeth with President Lyndon Johnson, sharing a canapé isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. No one dined their guests with more refinery than the Kennedys, yet the thirty-fifth president saw only a fraction of his visions come to fruition; rather it was his successor’s bullying and arm-twisting “Johnson Treatments” that actually got the jobs done.
Being the beau of the congregational ball isn’t nearly as important as the myth would have you believe. Yet Obama still felt the need to apologize for not be a presidential partier. The loudest grumblers, however, rarely even make an appearance when invited, but that doesn’t stop them from constantly finding something to complain about.
“I promise you, we invite folks from Congress over here all the time. And when they choose to come, I enjoy their company,” the president said. “Sometimes they don’t choose to come, and that has to do with the fact that I think they don’t consider the optics useful for them politically.”
Indeed, many times invitees declined visits to White House affairs and Republican leaders especially have given the president the cold shoulder. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly declined events at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, while House Leader Boehner has refused invitations to attend state dinners hosted for India, China, South Korea, Mexico, Great Britain, and Germany.
The reality is that in our nation’s capital, it’s simply politics before parties, and contrary to what many may assume, that’s the way it’s always been.