President Barack Obama had a dinner date last week with a dozen of his worst enemies, thus proving that the governmental stalemate in Washington, D.C., is driving him to unusual acts of political creativity - or desperation.
The president personally picked up the tab for the private dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, and the guests were all Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
Coming out of the hotel after the two-hour meal, the senators had nothing but nice things to say about the gathering. Most of the dinner discussion was about the deficit and budget issues, one unidentified senator told CNN. That might make a few Democrats uneasy, fearing Obama may be opening the way to a deal that will trade away too much, but senators who supped with the president indicated there is still a long way to go before anyone gives up anything. Nevertheless, one of the senators told CNN he and his colleagues saw a sincerity in Obama they had not perceived before and the result was "a very positive meeting."
This week, Obama was to have lunch at the capitol with more GOP senators and he is seeking a meeting with House Republicans as well. This is a significant shift for a president who, throughout his first term, was criticized by inside-the-Beltway critics for preferring cozy dinners with his family to cocktails with power brokers.
Personal contact has always been essential to getting things done in Washington and is even more important when governmental power is divided. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had to make deals with a Democratic Congress. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton had to work out compromises with a Republican House. Reagan and Clinton were both champion schmoozers. But those were the days when there was still a functioning center in the House and Senate. Now, Democratic and Republican lawmakers are so deeply divided and rigid in their ideology that it often appears they can barely stand to be in the same building, let alone at the same dinner table. In a political system already designed to divide power, the lack of people willing to reach out, give ground and cut deals has meant that Congress and the president have lurched from one confrontation to the next with little useful work getting done.
Criticized for the failure to come up with a budget bargain before automatic across-the-board cuts kicked in, Obama said in a recent press conference that he is "not a dictator" and cannot just force Congress to do his bidding. If not a dictator, neither has he proven to be a savvy, hands-on politician in the style of Lyndon Johnson, Reagan or Clinton. The days when LBJ slapped backs, twisted arms and brokered deals with a few powerful committee chairmen are long gone, of course, and that makes a charm offensive less effective than it once would have been. But nothing else is working - not even taking his case to the people - so Obama is giving charm a try.
Can hosting a dinner or showing up for lunch with Republicans do that much to soften the hard line they have taken on raising taxes on the rich or tampering with the wide open market for firearms? It seems unlikely. On the other hand, at least some Republican lawmakers may have grown weary of appeasing the most vociferous loudmouths in their party. They may actually want to start governing again, too.
Disillusioned voters have run out of patience with elected officials in both parties who claim to speak for the American people but who have proven incapable of sitting down and speaking to each other. Obama's dinner diplomacy is a very small but positive sign that do-nothing politicians may at last be ready to do something.
David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times.