Combined with a divided Congress — GOP-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate — and election-year maneuvering, neither basic nor crisis-driven legislation is getting done.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described the lack of communication between the White House and Congress as "stunning." He said he first learned many details of Obama's border request from news reports.
Obama is the "only person in America who can sign something into law and help bring members of his party on board for an outcome on a given piece of legislation that requires bipartisan support," McConnell said in an interview. "So it's a mystery, but that's the way they operate."
Several Democratic lawmakers echoed McConnell but spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the president of their party. They said they were baffled by the White House's tactics in handling the border request. Several Democrats expressed frustration that the president and administration officials weren't more involved in legislative fights.
Obama's hands-off approach was evident in June.
At a private White House meeting Obama held with the top four Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appealed to the president to intervene in pressing McConnell to allow speedier approval of the president's dozens of ambassadorial nominees.
Obama said it was a matter for Reid and McConnell to work out, an answer that left Democrats flabbergasted, according to participants in the meeting. Finally, more than a week later, Obama called McConnell to urge him to break the logjam and get ambassadors confirmed.
McConnell said the conversation — one of the few he has had with Obama in recent months — was limited to ambassadors.
White House officials rejected the criticism, insisting that they have been regularly consulting with lawmakers.
While frustrated with the administration, Democrats also sympathized. They described Obama's untenable position of trying to work with Republicans unwilling to give him any legislative victories, especially the tea party class of 2010. The White House has argued that even if it tried to cut a deal with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio — as it did in 2011 on entitlements, spending and taxes — there was no assurance Boehner could deliver his rambunctious caucus.
"You've got a core group of the House Republican caucus that has run on a platform of 'no compromise' — if the president's for it, they're against it," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Several Democrats said Obama must contend with GOP animosity, but so did former President Bill Clinton, who was undeterred through two terms.
Obama held a few dinners with Senate Republicans last year, discussing budgets, entitlements and immigration over steak and coconut sorbet. Hopes for keeping a constructive conversation going have faded more than a year after the last dinner and several participants have had little contact with Obama since.
Faced with the arrival of more than 57,000 minors since October, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Obama proposed $3.7 billion in emergency spending to deal with the influx. Republicans pressed for changes to a 2008 trafficking victims law that would speed deportations of children from Central America.
For days, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson privately told lawmakers he supported such a change, but the White House never pressed congressional Democrats about following through.