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* Dinner, lunch, phone calls with Republicans were uncommon
* Reporters had raised questions about Obama's "aloofness"
* President needs to resolve budget battles and move on
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, March 7 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's abrupt shift to a schmooze offensive - dining and visiting with Republican lawmakers - reflects a need for some resolution in the budget wars so he can move on to other priorities like gun control and immigration that could define his second term.
A drop in his approval ratings in recent weeks and a new round of media questions about his scant socializing with members of Congress have also likely put pressure on Obama to start talking to his political foes.
"He has a limited amount of time to tackle the items on his agenda, like immigration, increasing the minimum wage and gun control," said Nancy-Ann DeParle, who recently stepped down as deputy White House chief of staff and is now a Brookings Institution guest scholar.
"He can't waste time on a protracted battle over the budget and sequester," said DeParle. "That should be left to the Congress to figure out."
With another budget deadline looming, he needs to get a deal completed so he can seek legislative approval of other items on his second-term agenda. This year is key because by year's end Congress will start to look toward the 2014 midterm election.
White House aides say the socializing came about because Obama felt there had been a break in the crisis atmosphere that gripped Washington in the weeks leading up to automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, that kicked in on March 1.
But beyond their statements, they are contending with an unfavorable trend in his approval ratings.
A Reuters/Ipsos online poll released on Wednesday showed 43 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of his job, down 7 percentage points from Feb. 19. That came after his high-profile campaign to shame Republicans into accepting higher taxes to avoid the sequester cuts fizzled.
With the lack of a bipartisan breakthrough on the sequester, reporters are once again pestering the president and his spokesman about why, for the sake of compromise, he doesn't reach out more to his opponents.
It's an old theme, Obama's "aloofness." But it came to the fore again a week ago when Obama was pressed at a news conference on why he did not lock himself in a room with his opponents to negotiate a way out of a budget dispute that led to $85 billion in automatic spending cuts.
To engage in a "Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right" would not necessarily work, Obama said.
Then, suddenly, the president who doesn't like to schmooze, was out to dinner with Republicans, calling them on the phone, and having lunch, as he did Thursday, with Paul Ryan, the conservative chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, whose budget policies are detested by Democrats.
Plans have also been announced for the president to visit the Capitol next week to talk to lawmakers.
All these concerns forced Obama to the dinner table with members of what he hopes will become a "caucus of common sense," a group of lawmakers who might be willing to go along with a budget deal that raises revenues and reforms entitlement programs in a way that cuts spending.
Obama's defenders say his move to meet with lawmakers other than the Republican leadership team, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, marks an attempt to move past two men he considers unwilling to consider a reasonable compromise.
They say he has done plenty of socializing, much of it out of the public eye.
"There is this false narrative that pops up every six months where people assume that the president could just invite John Boehner over and open a magnum of Merlot and they would sort everything out. It just doesn't work that way," said Tommy Vietor, a Democratic strategist who recently left the White House.
"All the guy wants is a Republican leader that he can have a reasonable conversation with," said Vietor.
In fact, Obama has said he believes "the big stuff" depends less on schmoozing and more on "the attitude of the American people," as he put it at a Jan. 14 news conference.
He has spent most of his energy traveling around the country and staging televised White House events, with ordinary people as backdrops, to promote his views on issues, particularly during his budget battles with Republicans.
It worked in the past, particularly in the fight over the "fiscal cliff" in January. But it failed to produce his desired result in February and March in the stand-off over budget cuts.
"He's tried it the other way, and it didn't seem to work very well. I think he's going to a Plan B so to speak," said Andy Smith, director of the University of the New Hampshire Survey Center.
For a full story on recent budget talks: [ID: nL1N0BZ422] (Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Fred Barbash, Mary Milliken and Todd Eastham)