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Ruth Marcus: A cliffhanger in the White House

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: November 23, 2012
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President Obama hosted a screening of Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” at the White House the other day. He should do it again — and again and again.

For the subsequent showings, though, the president ought to invite every member of Congress. Have them settle into the plush red seats of the White House theater and mull the possibilities, for landmark greatness or epic failure, available to a second-term president and lame-duck Congress.

“Lincoln” is exquisitely crafted and even more exquisitely timed. Focused on Lincoln's battle to win House passage of the 13th Amendment, it presents useful lessons in the subtle arts of presidential leadership and the practice of politics, at once grimy and sublime.

Dealing with the fast-approaching “fiscal cliff” is not a national crisis on the order of abolishing slavery. The country is limping out of a recession, not embroiled in a bloody civil war.

Still, “Lincoln” offers lessons in the canny exercise of authority — the utility of the presidential office for congressional ego-stroking; the hidden, often grubby, levers of persuasion; the awesome force of a chief executive “clothed with immense power,” as Lincoln described the office.

“Lincoln” is a case study in presidential lobbying. To pass the 13th Amendment, the president needs to flip at least 20 Democratic votes in the House — to win over, as Secretary of State William Seward colorfully put it, the “same gang of talentless hicks and hacks who rejected the amendment” months earlier. Sound familiar?

There is an obstinate naivete to the common assertions that more assiduous congressional stroking on Obama's part would have guaranteed better results during his first term. The president confronted a united opposition bent on denying him re-election; if anything, there were times — for example, negotiations over health care reform — when he erred on the side of assuming that too much could be achieved by reasonable people reasoning together.

But anyone who has seen the lines of lawmakers of both parties waiting patiently at White House holiday receptions for their turn at the presidential photo op recognizes the allure of access to the chief executive. Relationships matter. They build trust and mutual understanding. As Lincoln appreciated, a bit of presidential schmoozing never hurts.

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