By JEFF ZELENY, New York Times
WASHINGTON — Can the shrill tone of Washington be changed through a presidential act of contrition? Or, perhaps, an enticing platter of oatmeal raisin cookies?
This week, President Obama has already served up both at the White House.
To one set of visitors, a gathering of Democratic and Republican members of Congress whom he invited to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, he carried around the freshly baked cookies as he mingled with his guests. To another set of visitors, the five broadcast and cable television anchors he invited to the Oval Office on Tuesday, he extended a blunt mea culpa and said he took responsibility for nominating aides with tax troubles.
With two weeks of the presidency now under his belt, both of these cases offer a window into how Mr. Obama may try to build relationships — and dispatch controversies — during his time in office.
Since the inauguration, one of the hottest tickets in town has been an invitation to the White House. And Republicans have been scoring them nearly as often as Democrats.
The president has held a cocktail reception for a bipartisan group of legislators, conducted sit-down meetings with House and Senate leaders of both parties and staged an indoor tailgate party Sunday to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals.
The social calendar continues on Wednesday evening, when the president and First Lady Michelle Obama open the Blue, Green and Red Rooms of the White House to more leading members of Congress.
The guests gain a bit of prestige from being invited to the White House. Does the president stand to gain anything in return by opening the door to Republicans who have already signaled their disapproval of his economic recovery plan and other items on his agenda?
Representative Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona, was among those invited to watch the Super Bowl in the White House theater. As Mr. Franks tells it, he is “probably as philosophically opposed to this president as any member of Congress.”
Yet as he left the party on Sunday evening, Mr. Franks said he did so with a new respect for Mr. Obama, whom he had seen in person only once before. (“I doubt he would remember,” he said. “I saw him at a distance.”)
“First of all, when you have a meeting like this, it humanizes and personalizes opponents, where you recognize them as human beings,” Mr. Franks said. “I think that does a lot towards helping people put aside politics and really try to do what is best for the country.”
Though the capital was buzzing late Tuesday afternoon with the news that Tom Daschle had withdrawn as the nominee for health and human services secretary because of scrutiny over income tax arrears, Mr. Franks did not so much as mention that controversy as he talked to a reporter. He said he would not hesitate to oppose the president “when I think he is doing something wrong for the country,” but he suggested that at least some type of a relationship has started to develop between the two.
“There is no question that I feel like I know him better than I did,” Mr. Franks said. “I give him great credit for his attitude and gracious hospitality.”
While Mr. Obama would surely like to win over some Republicans in the short term, particularly to vote on his economic plan, his advisers said it was just as important to build up a reservoir of good will to use at some point down the road.
Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania, said he was “pleasantly surprised” to be invited to the White House to watch the Super Bowl. He brought his three children — ages 14, 12 and 8 — who joined other kids at a Wii station that was set up in the East Wing. Like Mr. Obama, he was elected to Congress in 2004, but they hadn’t seen one another since freshman orientation four years ago on Capitol Hill.
“We had a wonderful time,” Mr. Dent said of his family’s night at the White House. “He seems like a guy you could have a lot of fun with.”
Their conversations were rooted in family and football, he said, not in their differences over the economic stimulus plan, which he called “a large spending bill — a mistake.” But he won’t soon forget his time with Mr. Obama.
“It’s extraordinarily important for the president to reach out and establish relationships with people on both sides — I commend him for that,” Mr. Dent said. “Trying to get things done in Washington is largely about relationships. You have to have them.”
Aside from the hometown loyalties of members of Congress whose states sent teams to the Super Bowl this year, the White House declined to discuss how the guest lists were drawn up. But the office of social secretary, working with political advisers and legislative liaisons to Capitol Hill, keep a careful accounting of who has been invited and who should receive an invitation one day soon.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, was not only following the football game the other night, but also watching the interaction between the president and his Republican guests. (“No,” she said, “the Republicans were not all standing in one corner.”)
In fact, she said, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, spent considerable time talking to the president and Mrs. Obama.
Ms. Klobuchar dismissed the Washington chatter about how no Republicans supported the president’s economic stimulus bill in the House last week, despite considerable efforts by Mr. Obama to reach out to them. She said the talk oversimplified the calculus by the White House as it figures out how to deal with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“They are looking beyond one vote,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “They want a new kind of culture in Washington. He really means it.”
And that, she said, may explain why the president was personally serving a platter of oatmeal raisin cookies to his guests the other night.