WASHINGTON — In late December, President Barack Obama’s new legislative affairs team sent him more than a dozen recommendations for ways to improve his strained relations with Capitol Hill. The president responded with a few ideas of his own, including a request for more social events with lawmakers at the White House.
It was a surprising suggestion from a president who has done little socializing with lawmakers of either party and has dismissed the notion that sharing a cocktail or a meal with members of Congress is a prescription for easing Washington gridlock.
But within weeks, there Obama was, mingling over martinis and appetizers with Democratic lawmakers at two White House receptions.
For some members of the president’s own party, it was one of the first times they had interacted with him without the weight of a crisis or a crucial vote hanging over them, said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
“It was a very a good use of the president’s time,” Welch added. “The call that you make at the moment the vote has to be cast is much more effective if a relationship has been established before the vote is needed.”
White House officials say Obama’s cocktail gatherings are part of a broader overhaul of his congressional outreach operation following the dismal start to his second term.
Under the direction of new legislative affairs director and longtime Senate operative Katie Beirne Fallon, Obama’s weekly schedule now includes time for phone calls to lawmakers. Members are getting more invitations to fly on Air Force One and attend Obama’s events around the country. An important post on the legislative affairs team that was vacant for more than two years has been filled by a Capitol Hill veteran who now represents the congressional perspective in White House meetings on health care, climate change and minimum wage.