House Democrats can’t figure out why Obama won’t talk to them

House Democrats are frustrated with what they say is a lack of election-year communication from the White House.

The lawmakers say it’s difficult to defend President Obama from GOP attacks, when he doesn't confer with his allies about his strategy and intentions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Some are scratching their heads why, after nearly six years in office and a reshuffling of his legislative affairs team, Obama's working relationship with Congress remains prickly.

“It's hard for us to fathom; I mean, is it just lack of full staffing and resources? [Is it] professional commitment? Is it a disdain for the legislative branch? I mean, what is it?” asked Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “People like me want to be allies — I mean, I am an ally. So work with us, reach out to us; you know, we're not the enemy.”

Connolly emphasized that he has "no complaints" with the administration's outreach when it comes to logistics and political operations. But as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he's long-been frustrated by the White House’s approach to "the bread-and-butter of congressional relations and the policy front."  

“That’s made our jobs harder,” he said.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, lamented what he characterized as a history of the White House dropping its plans on congressional Democrats without warning.

“Not being consulted ahead of time — that just makes people crazy,” Grijalva said. “Let us know ahead of time. Call us in when you're developing something so we can give you our ground-level reality check about how this is going to work.”

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) likened the relationship between presidents and their Capitol Hill allies to that between quarterbacks and the offensive linemen charged with protecting them. Some quarterbacks, he said, simply manage that alliance better than others.

“Certainly, Bill Clinton saw us as his offensive line, and so he attended to the nurturing of his offensive line,” Moran said. “And I don't think this president, this quarterback, invests all that much time and effort into the care and feeding of his offensive line.

“You can still win,” Moran added. “It just makes it a little more difficult.”

It's one of Washington's worst-kept secrets that many Democrats have, for years, been frustrated by what they consider a lackluster communications operation between Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill. 

There was little warning, for instance, when Obama proposed a cut to Social Security benefits as part of his 2014 budget proposal — a provision designed to entice GOP leaders to back a sweeping deficit deal, but which also infuriated liberal Democrats in and out of Congress.

More recently, the administration's message on the southern border crisis emerged bearing mixed signals about what new powers Obama was seeking to expedite the deportation of unaccompanied migrant kids. Amid the confusion, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats were prepared to swallow changes to a 2008 human trafficking law in return for the border funding, a position she quickly reversed following an outcry from immigrant rights advocates wary of eroding the legal protections for those kids.

Pelosi has long defended the White House's communications efforts. Still, even the ever-loyal Democratic leader recently urged the administration to bolster its congressional outreach in the face of widespread criticism from allies.

“While I disagree with the characterization [that Obama is too aloof], if that is the impression people have, then communication has to be stepped up,” she said during a July 22 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe” program.

Democrats were up in arms last fall after being blindsided by the failures plaguing the ObamaCare website. Those problems largely killed the political momentum the party had gained during October's government shutdown, a frantic stretch when Democrats thought they had good odds of winning back the House, and prompted widespread finger-pointing at the White House.

Obama quickly reshuffled his team in response: Katie Beirne Fallon, a well-known former staffer to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), was tapped in December to head the legislative affairs office; Miguel Rodriguez, who had raised eyebrows in both parties for his lack of Capitol Hill connections, was nudged into the private sector.

Obama also brought in John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff, to advise the White House and ease Democratic fears ahead of November's midterms.

The White House declined to comment for this story. But administration officials have defended their outreach efforts, noting that Obama has hosted policy meetings with congressional Democrats from both chambers no fewer than seven times this year, on top of his meetings with House and Senate Democrats at their separate issues conferences in February.

The administration has also launched a series of “Cabinet Roosevelt Room Roundtables,” in which lawmakers and their constituents discuss specific policies with White House officials and members of Obama's cabinet.

Some Democrats say they've noted progress but stress there's plenty of room for improvement. 

“I've seen a slight improvement over the last six months, but it's tough to dig yourself out of a hole in terms of communications,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.).

To be sure, not all Democrats find fault with Obama's outreach efforts. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) argued that the critics “have to acknowledge” that Obama faces a Republican majority “hell-bent on defeating any initiative the president proposes.”

“That's a reality that I think is much more a factor than how many times the president called us or reached out,” said Welch, who noted “a certain element of congressional pride” at play among the critics.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who's known Obama since their shared days in Chicago, had even sharper words for the Democrats going after the president's communications strategy.

“[With] some of my colleagues, I feel like I'm back in high school, right? It's, 'Oh, he didn't smile at me. He didn't do a photo with me. He didn't invite me to the Super Bowl party,’ ” Quigley said. “Who cares? What are you, 12? … We've got important stuff to do.”

Thomas Mann, congressional expert at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said the House grumbling has less to do with Obama's outreach than with the frustrations building among Democrats faced with the likely reality that they'll remain in the minority after November.

“There's way, way too much talk and analysis of the relations between the White House and the Congress,” Mann said. “Put a saint up there — bring LBJ and FDR — it's not going to be any better.”

Democrats have largely muted their public criticisms of the White House for fear of providing ammunition to critics across the aisle, but Grijalva predicted Democrats would find their tongues after November's elections.

“[We] will be more demanding in terms of things we want,” Grijalva said. “To have a position dictated and have no input, other than we've got to go with it for the sake of unity, that's one of the areas of building your own identity that you'll see [after November].”

Some are predicting the shift in dynamics will happen even sooner. Pascrell noted there would be plenty of pressure on Democrats in battle-ground districts to distance themselves from Obama well ahead the elections.

“You'll see it in the last two months of the campaign. … You'll see it before the elections as a campaign tool,” Pascrell said. 

“And after the election," he added, "all hell will break loose.”