President Obama said that gridlock on Capitol Hill stemmed from an inability to "penetrate the Republican base" and convince voters there that he's "not the caricature that you see on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh," rather than his oft-questioned willingness to socialize with lawmakers.
In bonus excerpts from an interview with The New Yorker's David Remnick, Obama conceded that there was "no doubt that personal relationships matter at the margins and can tip something over the finish line," and admitted that he "wasn't in a position to work the social scene in Washington" as the father of two young girls.
Obama said "it wouldn't have mattered how many drinks" former Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) and former President Reagan had, were the top Democrat not grappling with conservative Southern Democrats from districts won by the Republican president.
"I think probably, just from a purely political point of view, the bigger challenge that I’ve had has to do with the fact that there is a core group of Republican House members in particular who know that I lost their districts by twenty-five or thirty points, and that there is a Republican base of voters for whom compromise with me is a betrayal," Obama said.
The president also complained that conservative media had created a "caricature" of him divorced from "reality" that made rallying voters from those areas particularly difficult.
"The issue has been the inability of my message to penetrate the Republican base so that they feel persuaded that I’m not the caricature that you see on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m somebody who is interested in solving problems and is pretty practical, and that, actually, a lot of the things that we’ve put in place worked better than people might think," Obama said.
"And as long as there’s that gap between perceptions of me within the average Republican primary voter and the reality, it’s hard for folks like John Boehner to move too far in my direction."
Republicans have long complained about the president's willingness to reach across the aisle for social occasions.
Former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), for a time a top swing vote in the Senate, said last year she would give Obama a “close to failing” grade on his relationship with Congress.
“A president should be reaching out to many on the opposite side of the aisle — you know, to many Republicans, on a bipartisan basis,” Snowe told ABC News.
That complaint has been echoed by some Democrats. Late last year, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) complained that Obama waits until “it's almost to a crisis stage before” before engaging Congress on pivotal issues.
“I just think sometimes they're looking for a little bit of guidance also ... that's your responsibility as a leader to give that guidance,” Manchin told the Charleston-Huntington CBS affiliate.
In his interview with The New Yorker, Obama said the "truth of the matter" was Democrats had been remarkably unified "even when there were a lot of political risks involved."
"I’d like to think that part of that is because the Democrats up on Capitol Hill that I have relationships with know that the things I’m fighting for are things they care deeply about, and that I have a genuine commitment to seeing them succeed," Obama said.