Obama’s Jeffersonian moment

Nov 27 2012, 03:15 IST
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SummaryThe president should learn to use socialising as a political tool

In this hour of reflexive partisan division, with Americans frustrated by Washington’s seeming inability to address significant fiscal questions, among other issues, an inevitable question arises: Can President Obama do anything to create enough goodwill to pass some lasting reforms?

Here is a modest proposal, one drawn from the presidency of another tall, cool, cerebral politician-writer: use the White House and the president’s personal company to attempt to weave attachments and increase a sense of common purpose in the capital. Dinners with the president — or breakfast or lunch or coffee or drinks or golf — won’t create a glorious bipartisan Valhalla, but history suggests that at least one of our greatest presidents mastered the means of entertaining to political effect.

During both of his terms, on the eve of each Congressional session, President Thomas Jefferson warned friends that, in our vernacular, he was about to go offline.

Hours that Jefferson might have devoted to seeing friends in Washington or to writing letters were to be consumed instead by his pursuit of a fairly constant campaign of using his social hours — and particularly his dinner table — as a way of making the rougher edges of politics smooth. He believed that sociability was essential to republicanism. Jefferson’s dinner campaigns were intensely practical.

He believed in constant conversation between the president and lawmakers, for “if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put in a public message,” Jefferson wrote, “it becomes a government of chance and not of design.” The Jefferson strategy largely worked.

Yet Jefferson could be ruthless about the use of his limited time in power. He chose, then, to use dinner at the President’s House to put himself and his own agenda at the centre of things.

JON MEACHAM is the author of ‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power’

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