One criticism of the president that permeated the nonstop socializing around the inauguration was that a lack of socializing by Barack Obama is to blame for much of the partisan rancor crippling Washington.
If the president would have more parties with members of Congress, the argument goes, the appetite for going over a fiscal cliff just for the fun of it would be replaced by a lofty spirit of cooperation.
It isn’t going to happen, and maybe it shouldn’t. We exaggerate the value of such social events. And, by the way, Obama early on did a lot of having people over to watch sporting events or picnic on the South Lawn. As he said at a recent news conference in answer to a question about the growing criticism of his isolation: He builds it, they come, but the next day they trash him anyway.
Watching the Obamas during the inaugural parade made clear why he has chosen evenings with his wife and daughters over evenings with Congress. A more comfortable foursome you’re unlikely to find.
The president recently lamented that his 14-year-old already doesn’t have time for the card games they used to play, the cry of parents everywhere about teenagers soon to be driving, dating and dreaming of college. In the hours they sat together on Inauguration Day, the girls were fully engaged with their parents — they giggled, got their parents to kiss for photos and boogied to the passing bands. There’s a lot you can fake in politics, but it would be hard to get your kids to rock to parade music with mom and dad.
The balls told a story, too. Obama may have mugged for the cameras at the Commander-in-Chief Ball, but it wasn’t the first time he sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to Michelle. We’ve had so many unhappy marriages in the White House that we underestimate the impact of a happy one.
The denizens of Washington thought that the Obamas would be an antidote to the Arkansas hick Bill Clinton — who preferred barbecue and Diet Coke to Georgetown dinner parties — and to the cowboy ethos of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But they didn’t bank on a suburban dad who would rather eat at home above the store than join House Speaker John Boehner on the Truman balcony for a glass of merlot and a Camel Ultra Light.
Of course, it wasn’t Obama’s failure to hang out with Boehner that doomed last year’s grand bargain on deficit reduction, but it’s a comfort to Republicans to say that it was. If having people over for the evening is such an essential requirement, then we shouldn’t elect presidents whose tenure in government coincides with their peak child-rearing years.
Part of the reason there are many fewer relationships these days is that so few members bring their families to Washington (that was a rare sighting of Boehner’s wife at the inaugural lunch). Members work three days and then fly home to raise funds. The possibility of friendships disappeared long before Obama decided to socialize with friends he already had and spend quality time with his family.
Obama made very nice at the lunch with Congress after he was inaugurated. It didn’t stop Republicans from blasting the speech he had just given. If I were on Capitol Hill, I wouldn’t be waiting for a call to join the president for beer and pretzels on Super Bowl Sunday.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.