House Speaker John Boehner's decision to skip the White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, following his declining to join President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One last week, has again raised the question of whether the two political leaders are having trouble getting along.
Boehner's office dismissed suggestions that Boehner's empty seat at the White House affair was in any way a snub. Two other congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, also sent their regrets because of various logistical reasons. Boehner is meeting Hu on Capitol Hill Thursday morning for substantive talks.
Boehner has turned down dinner invitations from both Republican and Democratic presidents, his office said. Those included the two other state dinners held by the Obama White House, with the leaders of Mexico and India.
But there persists a perception that Boehner, never close personally to Obama, is keeping his distance physically as well. Last week Boehner declined a seat on Air Force One when Obama, joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, flew to Arizona to lead memorial services for the victims of the Tucson shooting attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Instead, while Obama was in Tucson last Wednesday, Boehner remained in Washington to lead the House in debating and passing a resolution honoring Giffords, who was critically wounded, and the six people who died in the attack. That evening he attended a reception for a candidate for Republican National Committee chairman.
Of course, free rides on Air Force One have not always been helpful to GOP speakers. In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was criticized after complaining that he didn't get any face time with President Bill Clinton during a trip to Israel and had to exit by a back ramp and suggesting that his pique was one reason for the government shutdown that year.
There's never been a lot of common ground between Boehner, the blue-collar son of an Ohio bar owner, and Obama, the Hawaii-born son of a Kenyan scholar he barely knew. Boehner, 11 years Obama's senior, studied business at Xavier University; Obama studied law at Harvard Law School.
During the 2010 election campaign, Boehner said he felt no connection to Obama.
"When I talk about the real world, it doesn't seem to register" with Obama, Boehner said in a television interview.
But the two have talked numerous times since the election, and last November Obama called to wish the speaker-in-waiting a happy birthday.
"While they may disagree on policy, the speaker has a very cordial relationship with the president and he looks forward to discussing how best to start creating jobs and cutting spending as we move forward this year," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith.
Boehner did extend an invitation for Obama to publicly debate the issues with Republicans at a House GOP retreat last year, to the dismay of some Republicans who thought Obama dominated the conversation. The president wasn't invited back this year.
Last month, when Obama accused Republicans of taking middle-class taxpayers hostage by demanding that tax cuts also be extended to the wealthy, Boehner said in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that Obama had shown him "some disrespect." Obama, he added, was "engaging, certainly smart, brilliant" but "we come from different backgrounds and I think our view of the economy is also very different."
They do share one passion: golf. Boehner is an accomplished golfer, Obama an enthusiastic one, and both have talked of getting together for a round. "It's a great way to really get to know someone," Boehner told "60 Minutes."