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President Barack Obama and his top advisers have declared that they're done playing "the inside game" in Washington, but ...
President Barack Obama and his top advisers have declared that they're done playing "the inside game" in Washington, but one crucial Democratic constituency -- his former colleagues in Congress -- say the president shouldn't deep-six a strategy that he only half-heartedly tried in his first term.
As Obama prepares an aggressive public lobbying campaign for his ambitious second-term agenda, Democrats on Capitol Hill are bluntly warning him that he has to do more to engage them if he expects his congressional allies to take a series of politically tough votes.
Interviews with dozens of members of Congress and senior aides reveal frustration and in some cases exasperation that a president who came from the Senate has no apparent appetite for cultivating relationships on Capitol Hill.
These Democrats say they almost never hear from Obama personally, haven't been to the White House since Rahm Emanuel was still chief of staff and are mystified that the president passed over a popular legislative affairs aide for the job as top congressional liaison. One high-profile Democrat who recently spoke to a group of Hill Democrats came away stunned at their anger toward a president they hardly know.
Take Sen. Jay Rockefeller, for example. While the West Virginia Democrat predicted Obama would reach out more to Congress -- "I think that lesson is well learned, " he said -- this chairman of the Commerce Committee and 28-year veteran of the Senate said he had yet to hear from the president since last November's election. "I'm just new here," he said good-naturedly.
Added Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the author of an expansive new gun control bill: "I'm very hopeful that the president will reach out -- I think it's really important to mix it up individually with members of Congress. Everybody doesn't have horns. I think increasingly people -- certainly on our side -- want to work with the executive, so we are very much amenable to that."
Obama loyalists often roll their eyes at such grumbles and suggest that questions about who Obama golfs or lunches with are a tedious Washington fixation that's much more about ego than policymaking and is all but moot in an era of intense political polarization.
But to hear it from Democratic members of Congress, the issue at hand is that the president evidences no interest in getting to know them or their political circumstances. Obama and his high command mostly deal with members of the congressional leadership and are seemingly disengaged from the rank and file in their own party, they say.
The focus on socializing is tangential to a much more central problem: It's not that Obama never invites them up for Camp David weekends or over for White House movie screenings, it's that many fellow Democrats believe he's out for himself and detached from broader party and member interests.
The pleadings from inside his party come at a noteworthy moment. As he begins a second term, Obama's more aggressive rhetoric toward Democrats and more fulsome embrace of an activist liberal agenda are gratifying to many partisans.
But it remains an open question whether the new political style means a new approach to the business of the capital. Obama's distance from fellow Democrats, and his seeming diffidence toward many of the personalities and rituals of politics, is a matter of temperament that may be hard to change.
Among the broader Democratic universe, it's a topic of endless debate: Why is the president so seemingly indifferent toward Congress? Some simply chalk up to Obama's nature -- he's not a backslapping, schmoozing type, whether with politicians or anyone else. Others, though, believe Obama and his inner circle still have a chip on their shoulder dating to the 2008 presidential campaign when so many congressional Democrats backed Hillary Clinton. According to this school, the Hillary experience and what Obama guru David Plouffe famously called the "bed-wetting" in elite Democratic ranks after John McCain put Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket has fostered a view among Obamans that most Democratic members of Congress are conventional wisdom-driven hacks lacking the sort of political chops they possess at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The official White House view is that this is not an argument worth engaging in. "The president appreciates the support he received from Democrats in Congress in passing important legislative priorities during his first term and believes the country is better off thanks to their hard work and cooperation. He looks forward to meeting with the caucuses this week to discuss shared priorities for the second term," said a White House representative.
But Phil Schiliro, Obama's mild-mannered first congressional liaison, becomes worked up when asked if the president is indifferent to Congress and quickly rattles off the myriad events he organized.
"There wasn't a single request we made that I recall the president saying no to," said Schiliro, who left the White House at the end of 2011 after working to pass some of Obama's most important priorities. "This is nonsensical. The president's legislative record has been the best in decades. And not only didn't he reject any of the endless suggestions we made for meeting with members, but he added to it. The President's record speaks for itself."
Predicting a line of questioning about the detached president, Schiliro continued: "Some say the President didn't like reaching out as much as previous presidents. I thought he did, but this misses the point. He worked with Congress constantly and was extraordinarily effective. That's what matters most."
As Schiliro rightfully pointed out, griping from occupants of one big white building on Pennsylvania Avenue about those in the other big white building down the street is nothing new.
Yet Obama clearly has less interest in keeping up relationships with Congress than past presidents. Lyndon B. Johnson was, as the unsealed recordings make clear, constantly on the phone with his old colleagues, cajoling, threatening and flattering in his inimitable Texas Hill Country style. And George H.W. Bush retained close ties with his old House friends, including Democratic powers Dan Rostenkowski, with whom the president had served on the Ways and Means Committee, and Sonny Montgomery, a frequent White House guest in the Bush 41 years.
Now, a confluence of events is raising the volume on the congressional complaints about this president. Just as Obama is detailing the considerable legislative lift he expects of Congress -- everything from taxes and spending to guns to immigration to climate change -- his campaign makes plans to morph into a political pressure group separate from the Democratic National Committee and the president himself takes to the pages of The New Republic to explain that he plans to spend his second term "in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington."
With 20 Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2014, seven of them from states the president lost, Obama's fellow Democrats in the Capitol say they don't need him and his political aides publicly pushing them as much as they want them to offer private reassurance and campaign help.
It's a message Obama may not hear directly when he addresses both the House and Senate Democratic retreats this week, but POLITICO has learned that even some Hill Democrats close to Obama and his staff have privately made clear to the White House that the president needs to do a better job of congressional outreach in his second term.
Asked about Vice President Joe Biden's role as the de facto Hill liaison for the White House, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said: "I think the president is going to do a whole lot more interactions of his own with the Congress."
Asked if he had urged him to do that, Clyburn said: "Yes, I have."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an early Obama supporter in 2008 and top surrogate in that race, put it this way: "Everyone loves a touch. It's not his favorite part of the job. But it's a necessary part of the job."
The topic of Obama's relationship with his own party in Congress invariably draws raised eyebrows and did-you-hear-this-one stories.
One of the most well-connected Democrats in the capital said he came away from a recent meeting with Hill Democrats "astonished at the contempt they have for our president." The members made clear that, after largely backing Obama in his first term, they would oppose him if he tried to make cuts to entitlements in the name of deficit reduction.
Obama and his top aides generally get along well with the Senate's Democratic leadership -- though there were real tensions over the fiscal cliff compromise - but while the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer are in frequent contact with the White House, rank-and-file Democratic senators rarely hear from the president.
To bring up the topic of Obama and his old colleagues with members of Congress themselves, not a class of people lacking in pride, is often to get stared back with daggers. Hemming and hawing often take place, good-sport recollections of always hearing back from staff are brought up and occasionally come requests to go off the record.
But, among some Democratic senators, there's a willingness to put their names with their statements.
"I think they might have done more," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) when asked about the president's outreach to the Hill in the first term. "I think they might have learned more by doing more."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who fended off a tough GOP challenge last year to win his second term, raised something his colleagues would discuss only privately: There was more outreach when Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, was chief of staff.
Asked when he had last been invited to the White House, Tester said it was in 2010, when the large class of Democratic senators elected in 2006 came down for a lunch with Obama, Biden and Emanuel.
Tester wants the president more engaged during this Congress, and he argued that Obama and committee chairmen should communicate more frequently, particularly on the fiscal issues that will hang over much of this year.
"I think it could save time and make things work a little better," he said.
The Montanan is a prime example of the sort of moderate Democrat on whom Obama will need to lean to get legislation on guns, immigration and energy through Congress over the next four years.
So is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is expected to be a key player in the gun debate. He heard from Obama in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown school shooting in mid-December but hasn't talked to him since, and rarely spoke with him before the tragedy.
"I told him that there's a responsible approach to take," Manchin said of his December conversation.
A senior Democratic official said there's "a huge disconnect between their willingness to work with Senate Democrats and their need to work with Senate Democrats."
This official said the cold shoulder toward the Hill extends from Obama into the ranks of his staff.
"There was a point in the election where [Obama's campaign] was telling senators and members that if they spoke at any Obama event they were going have to pay for part of the event," said this official, noting that the idea was killed because of "an outpouring of anger."
And during the 2012 campaign season, Democrats in the Senate were furious at the decision of the Obama campaign not to help them financially as they battled to keep their majority.
But the tensions flared anew when Democrats on the Hill got a cursory heads-up just a day before Obama's campaign apparatus announced plans to become a new political entity aimed at pushing through the president's agenda. The first time it came up, said this official, was at a "this is what we're doing" briefing the day before it was made public.
Some Democratic senators also fumed when, after chief congressional liaison Rob Nabors was promoted earlier this month, the congressional-affairs post went to a little-known aide instead of the White House's Senate liaison Ed Pagano.
"There was already an experienced Hill person up here," grumbled one Democratic senator about Pagano being passed over.
Pagano, Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy's former chief of staff and a onetime University of Vermont power forward, is well-liked in the upper chamber and is a fixture during votes there, towering over reporters and aides between the Capitol's elevators and the doors of the Senate.
Leahy, who is meeting with Obama this week, sympathizes with the president.
"He is trying to balance everything," Leahy said. "He is a strong family man. We have a lot of people who talk about family values, but they don't live them. Even when he was in the Senate, I'd work out with him -- he was in a lot better shape than I was -- he'd say, 'Pat, do you think we'll finish voting on Thursday because I miss my girls.'"
But some of Leahy's colleagues expect more.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, noting that most two-term presidents focus chiefly on foreign policy in their final four years, said the president ought to invest more time in hearing out those in Congress on defense and foreign affairs panels.
"I think the president would be well-advised to strengthen those personal relationships and to focus on them," said Carper.
To veteran Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who last month announced his retirement, it may be too late.
Harkin said he hadn't had a substantive talk with the president since last August. At the time, Harkin said, he warned the president: "I said to him in August, you know, if you get reelected [but] if we don't change the filibuster rules, you might as well take a four-year vacation. ... I don't see him calling up anybody and urging them to have fundamental reform of the filibuster rules."