Not schmoozing enough probably isn’t what’s held up Obama’s agenda

President Obama isn’t a schmoozer, and it’s costing him bills. At least, that’s how gridlock in Congress over his legislative agenda is frequently explained. According to this theory, Obama’s aloof, professorial demeanor has alienated members of Congress, thus making them less willing to work with him to turn bills into laws. These politicians are sensitive to personal attention, the theory goes, and they would be more likely to vote with the President if only he’d sit down with them for a beer, or play a round of golf once in a while.

While the veracity of this theory has been debated at the national level, evidence from Pennsylvania suggests that the power of political schmoozing is not strong enough to transcend political polarization under conditions of divided government.

On January 20, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf, a wealthy businessman (and Political Science Ph.D.), took the oath of office in Harrisburg, PA. Wolf was the only Democrat to defeat a sitting Republican Governor (Tom Corbett) in the 2014 elections and did so by a wide 55-45% margin (Alaska’s Republican governor, Sean Parnell, lost to a fusion ticket of Independent Bill Walker for Governor and Democrat Byron Mallott for Lieutenant Governor). At the same time, Republicans expanded their majorities in both the Pennsylvania House and Pennsylvania Senate, leaving the state’s executive and legislative branches under the same partisan control as our national government.

Upon taking office, Wolf employed was could be described as the anti-Obama strategy in terms of schmoozing with state legislators in Harrisburg. According to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Brad Bumsted, by the end of his first full month in office, Wolf had invited all 253 Pennsylvania legislators to his office for a personal meeting.

Wolf also sent personal letters to legislative leaders and hosted them for dinner even before taking office. Additionally, Wolf made surprise drop-in visits to legislators; first term Republican Representative Aaron Kaufer was shocked to see Wolf standing in his office when he opened the door one January morning. In total, Wolf’s outreach has gone far beyond that of predecessors Tom Corbett (2011-2015), Tom Ridge (1995-2001) and even the famously gregarious Ed Rendell (2003-2011).

Having far different policy priorities than Republican legislators, Wolf’s outreach served as a case study testing the power of political schmoozing to transcend political polarization under conditions of divided government. And the results have not been good for those in the pro-schmoozing camp.

Wolf’s attempts to make friends with his Republican counterparts didn’t help him craft policy.  When it became clear that Wolf and Republican leaders could not come to an agreement on the budget by the June 30 deadline, the Republican majorities in both House and Senate passed their own budget plans, which Governor Wolf promptly vetoed in full. As a result, Pennsylvania government went into (and remains to this day) in partial shutdown with an end, according to PoliticsPA reporter Sy Snyder, “nowhere in sight.” (Due to a 2009 court decision, Pennsylvania state employees are still paid during a shutdown.)

The acrimony between Wolf and the legislature does not end with the budget. Republican legislators have also recently passed bills to change the state pension system and to privatize the state liquor system. Wolf issued prompt vetoes to both of these bills.

Thus, like Washington, Pennsylvania government could be described as being in total gridlock. According to those who ascribe to the theory of political schmoozing, it should not be this way; Wolf’s outreach should be worth something. So what happened?

An April quote from Republican strategist Charlie Gerow predicting failure in budget negotiations does a good job in general describing why gridlock exists in Harrisburg. To quote Gerow, “He’s selling a product that’s unsellable. There’s not a single Republican vote.” In other words, Wolf’s priorities, such as imposing a tax on hydraulic fracturing and raising funding for education are so different from Republican priorities, such as not raising taxes in any case ever, that there simply is not a readily available deal to be made.

President Obama and John Boehner schmoozing, via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama and John Boehner schmoozing, via Wikimedia Commons

The fact that such a wide gap exists between Democratic and Republican politicians should not be a surprise to anyone who has followed politics in recent years, as levels of political polarization have risen to record levels. While it is still early in Wolf’s term, what the Pennsylvania example suggests so far is that even when politicians make a concerted effort to schmooze with the other side, those efforts are unlikely to transcend high levels of political polarization. While schmoozing may have been successful in the less-polarized era of, to quote native Pennsylvanian Chris Matthews, “Tip and the Gipper,” it is far less likely to work when the parties have deeply held and diametrically opposed policy priorities.

To return to the opening example of President Obama and outreach to Congress, the Pennsylvania example suggests that it may not have mattered that Obama did not reach out to Congress as much as his critics have complained. It is highly unlikely that more outreach would have changed the course of any policy negotiation. Republicans would have opposed President Obama on almost every issue, and Democrats would have supported the President on almost every issue.

This is not to say that outreach to the other party, or another branch in general, is a bad thing. However, to suggest that political schmoozing will easily be able to transcend gridlock resulting from political polarization under conditions of divided government is pure folly.


Jacob Smith is Political Science Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has a B.A. in Political Science from Kenyon College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with highest honors in Political Science, and a M.A. in Political Science from UNC-Chapel Hill. His interests relate to Congress, congressional elections, and political parties. All opinions shared here are his own; posting on AMERICAblog does not imply agreement with any posts, current or past, by other authors.

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8 Responses to “Not schmoozing enough probably isn’t what’s held up Obama’s agenda”

  1. Doug105 says:

    Frankly, I hope she breaks a few necks.

  2. The_Fixer says:

    President Obama could buy them all the hookers they could defile, fill their liquor cabinets with all the booze they could swill, or dole out free cars like Oprah and they would still not give an inch.

    Why? Because they hate him.

    It could be racism, the way he walks, the way he talks, the shape of his hands, or any of the imaginary things they’ve made up about him – it matters not the reason (although racism is certainly worse than the other potential reasons). They just think he’s not worthy of the Presidency and don’t want to cooperate at all.

    They proved that on his first inauguration day with that little meeting they had while he was being sworn in. They were sitting there, strategizing over how best to obstruct every attempt at implementing his policy. This was even before he moved into the White House, and they had never even heard much of what he wanted to do, let alone had any proposals on their desks. They just knew that whatever he would come up with, they’d block.

    In the end, it wound up being a clear F* You to the American people. We elected him – twice, in fact – but that didn’t matter. They did what they wanted to do, and we could all piss off, as far as they were concerned.

    Because of this, you’re right, Jacob. There is no way they’d ever work with him, no matter how much he schmoozed with them. They just hate him.

  3. marknc says:

    I think they just go for the sugar in the Koch.

  4. Ashley_Walker says:

    My cousin. woz actualey earning money part-time from there computar. . there dads buddy had bean doing this 4 less than 15 months and recently paid for the morgage on their place and purchased a new Honda . have a peek at this .

    Daily World. Idea Of Earning

  5. Indigo says:

    Schmoozing is boozing!

    Not impressed. But arm twisting . . . there’s a story told by experienced politicos who’ve been around for ever and ever and twisted arms before, taken notes on boozy indiscretions, recorded where each skeleton is buried, possibly helped bury them, and knows exactly whose arm to twist when and how and where. That would not be Obama; that would be Boehner.

    And Hillary.

    Oh!

  6. BeccaM says:

    Senator Mitch McConnell, in National Journal on Oct. 23, 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

    There’s your reason. Moreover, this has been the case since January 2009.

  7. 2karmanot says:

    Great article Jacob! The Schmoozing Theorem: ( translation) throwing donut crumbs to political cockroaches. This outdated theorem no longer applies because of Darwinian evolution. The cockroaches only go for Danish Pastries in the Senate lunchroom these days.

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