Did Lack of Relationship-Building Between the President and Congress Contribute to the Government Shutdown?

By: Jordan Stivers

The recent government shutdown, while undoubtedly caused by many factors, highlights the disconnect between the executive and legislative branches of our government.  While separation of powers was built into the Constitution, history has shown that government works best for the people when the branches, particularly the executive and legislative branches, work together.  Needless to say, that has not been happening for quite some time.

Americans on both sides of the aisle are quick to cast blame on the opposing party for the current situation in Congress, but this is clearly getting us nowhere.  Perhaps it would be more productive to critically examine what members of our own parties have done (or failed to do) to contribute to the almost constant stalemate in D.C.  I’ll start.  I have been a supporter of President Obama since the day he announced he was running for President.  I was one of the many young people who were energized by his youthfulness and optimism about the future of our country in 2008.  But while I am a supporter of the President, I can still acknowledge his shortcomings and criticize him for something he has failed to do that has undoubtedly contributed to the hyper-partisanship we see today.  Criticism of our political leaders, even those we like and support, is healthy and maintains balance and accountability in our political system.  So, while I support the President, I am disappointed in his perceived unwillingness to build relationships with members of Congress; both those in the Republican party and even his fellow Democrats.

The Obama administration has been successful in many ways, and as the first African-American to be elected President, his presidency is deeply meaningful for the country.  However, with the rise of the Tea Party coalition within the Republican Party coinciding with Obama’s presidency, partisanship has become increasingly stark since 2008. The government shutdown is only the most recent manifestation of the growing divide between the parties.  While the tactics employed by Republican leadership in the House of Representatives may have directly led to the shutdown, President Obama’s failure to reach out to Congressional leaders in the past few years may have also indirectly led to the current crisis in Washington.

This past week, Leon Panetta, who until earlier this year served under President Obama as the Secretary of Defense, spoke about how the lack of personal relationships between the President and members of congress has hurt his presidency and worsened the breakdown of communication and productivity in the capitol. He said that while the President is extremely bright and capable, that is not enough to be a successful President.  The President must engage in the process.  It is not enough to feel you have the right answers.  Panetta said that “what is missing today is that engagement, that willingness to engage with other people, listening to them, being willing to find out what it is they need.”  President Obama’s failure to do this may have exacerbated a Republican party that was already hostile to his policies, because they feel they are unheard, and that the President perceives himself to be above them.

This criticism of the President is not new.  His lack of the D.C. “schmooze gene” has been widely reported on, going back to his first term, and when he was running for re-election.  Part of candidate Obama’s appeal was that he advocated for a bipartisan Washington that could put their differences aside for the sake of governing. While it is normal to prefer spending time with family and close friends over people you don’t know as well, let alone political enemies, when you are President of the United States, it is your job to work with Congress to help ensure that the policies you believe to be in the best interest of the country have a chance for success.  The tradition of Presidents building relationships with members of Congress for the sake of governing goes back to George Washington, and the most productive presidents in American history have been good at it; Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson immediately come to mind.

No matter how frustrated we become with politicians, we cannot forget they are human beings that have pride, just like us.  All the President needs to do to begin repairing his relationship with Congress is to take the first step and reach out to them; invite them to the White House for coffee, go golfing, whatever.  It isn’t too much to ask when the country is depending on how well our leaders get along.  In the coming weeks, the President should re‑evaluate his approach to dealing with Congress so the remainder of his presidency can live up to its lofty ideals.

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