President Barack Obama promised to change the tone in Washington, and to this end, the Obamas want to make happy hour a weekly event. Interestingly, politics are off limits at these bipartisan social gatherings which reflects a time in the past when politics wasn’t a 24/7 blood sport.
According to Politico, the big change at the White House is that the President and First Lady are social people. The Bushs kept a slow social calendar, as did the Carters. The Clintons are not the social or non-political types. It is likely that they would see no value in any gathering where politics are off limits. Plus the Clintons are very suspicious, and only seem to trust loyalists. One has to go back to the JFK and FDR eras to recall a time when there was a social element to the White House.
In my opinion, the politics are off limits when the work day is over attitude reminds of the relationship between Democrats and Ronald Reagan, who battled Reagan from 9-5, but personally liked the president. The Reagan era was the last time that politics wasn’t personal. One of the tough lessons that Obama appears to have learned is that it is much easier to change the tone in Washington compared to changing how Washington works. The tone was different between Obama and Congressional Republicans during the stimulus debate, but at the end of the day only 3 Senate Republicans supported the stimulus.
The idea that people can disagree, but still like each other used to be the foundation of compromise in Washington. This was the way our government used to work. Perhaps we are reaching the end of the era of the demonization of political opponents. Republicans hated Bill Clinton, while Democrats hated George W. Bush. Politics should not be a zero sum game, but this is the way most members of Congress have viewed it since 1994. Both parties found it politically useful to treat their opposition as the enemy. The rhetoric provided red meat and motivation for the base. The consequence of this behavior was an inability of both parties to listen to each other.
As much as Obama seems to be changing the tone, problems still remain. Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats will remain a constant thorn in Obama’s side. The rules are different in the House. Compromise is not required to get things done. The majority, not only rules, but rules with an iron fist. Most of the Republican complaints about how the stimulus was handled center around Pelosi and the House. Obama can be sincere about his desire to change the Capitol, but if the Congress keeps working the same old way, bad feelings will continue to ensue. Even if both parties personally like the president, they still need to learn to work with the Congress.