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The Utter Irrelevance of "Personal Charm"

April 29, 2013

You'd think that if you're an experienced political reporter for The Washington Post, after a while you would have acquired a sense of how things happen in the nation's capital these days?how legislation gets passed, how the different power centers in town relate to each other, and what factors do and don't matter in determining the outcome of events. Yet for some unfathomable reason, we're still talking about whether Barack Obama can exercise his "personal charm" or "powers of persuasion" on members of the Republican party, convincing them to vote for things they're otherwise inclined against. Here's an article from today's Post:

There was little time to mingle Tuesday night at the White House. Five minutes after greeting them, President Obama ushered 20 female senators into the State Dining Room and invited each to offer her thoughts on the issues of the day. And that was about it.

That took up our entire two hours, to go around the table, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), recalled in an interview. It was not the kind of warm banter that can go back and forth. People had their points they wanted to make to the president. It was all business.

After more than four years in the White House and weeks into his latest effort to woo lawmakers, Obama still isn't very good at using his personal charm to achieve political success. Yet, it may be one of the few strategies the president has left if he hopes to accomplish his remaining ­second-term priorities, including a sweeping budget deal and a comprehensive immigration bill.

Oh for pete's sake. Seriously? After everything we've been through in the last four and a half years, is there someone with detectable brain activity who believes that the success or failure of any bill pushed by the president will come down to his "personal charm"?

Let's recall that on the very day Obama was inaugurated, Republican leaders got together for dinner and decided that their strategy was going to be to oppose and obstruct everything he wanted to do. And in many ways, the strategy was a success. You could argue that it had some unpleasant side-effects for the party, but regardless, they're sticking to it, and it isn't because Obama hasn't been charming enough. He could personally give Eric Cantor a mani-pedi and lovingly knit John Boehner a sweater, and it wouldn't matter.

That doesn't mean they'll never support anything Obama does. But they'll only do it when they decide it's good for them, not because he charmed them into it. If immigration reform passes, which it well might, it will be because enough members of the GOP saw it in their interest to vote for it. It happens that on immigration many of them see it in their interest to support it, or more particularly, see a danger of pushing the Latino vote even farther away if they kill it. It's a reasonable assessment of their political future, and that's the kind of thing they'll think about when they cast that vote, not how they feel about Obama.

That isn't to say members of Congress aren't human, and they don't sometimes make decisions based on things like personal pique. But when it comes to big, high-profile issues, they're intensely pragmatic. They might be wrong about what's in their interest, but their perceived interest is what will dictate their votes. Haven't we figured that out by now?

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