'Damned if you do, damned if you don't': Democrats defend Obama outreach

House Democratic leaders on Wednesday strongly defended President Obama's congressional outreach efforts against charges that they're merely a political stunt.

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"It's the old expression, 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't,' " Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters. "Had the president not reached out, I think all of you would be criticizing him for not reaching out to both Democrats and Republicans. He's doing what you all have been asking."

Speaking just hours before Obama met with House Republicans in the Capitol, Crowley said any criticisms of the president's outreach campaign are premature, and he suggested that those lobbing the attacks are disrespecting the office of the presidency.

"John Lenin had a song, 'Give Peace a Chance,' " Crowley said. "He hasn't even come here yet and already you're criticizing him … on what his motivations are. Let's hear what the president has to say. … We need to get back to that point where we respect the office of the presidency."

Long-criticized as a poor communicator with Congress, Obama is taking steps this week to improve that reputation. The president spoke Wednesday with the House Republican conference, just a day after he'd huddled with Senate Democrats. And meetings with House Democrats and Senate Republicans are scheduled for later in the week.

The outreach, which comes just as the budget battle on Capitol Hill is heating up, has led to charges that the president has launched a political crusade designed to boost his image in the eyes of voters weary of the Washington's partisan gridlock.

As Wednesday's meeting was getting underway, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) summarized that skepticism, tweeting, "Stuck getting Obama 'charm offensive' right now when we should be talking about #balancedbudget … or is it 'offensive charm?' "

Fueling those criticisms, an anonymous White House official told a Beltway newspaper this week that Obama's trips to the Capitol were politically motivated.

“This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours,” the National Journal reported, quoting a "senior" Obama official. “I hope you all [in the media] are happy because we’re doing it for you.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, disagreed. He said "it's always useful" for the president to reach out to Congress – particularly those who disagree with him – for the sake of seeking compromise. Hoyer blamed the Tea Party for shifting the Republican conference to the right and resisting compromise, despite Obama's overtures.

"I'm amused when I hear that President Obama hasn't reached out enough. Every time he's reached out, they've bitten off his hand," Hoyer said Wednesday during a press briefing in the Capitol.

"He hasn't had great success because in 2010 the people elected a large number of people who think that compromise is selling out," he added. "I think they're wrong. Democracy can only work through compromise."

As for the White House aide who spoke with National Journal, Hoyer had some choice words.

"I don't know who they are," Hoyer said, "[but] if they were working for me they wouldn't be working very much longer."