What kind of negotiator is President Obama?

President Obama’s behavior over the past month is consistent with three different models, and I cannot figure out which one applies.

In model 1 the President is a risk-taker. He is a competent and effective negotiator who is willing to risk a recession and the ensuing political blame game in January because he thinks both will help him achieve his fiscal policy goals. I don’t think the President is willing to take such a risk, but Michael Barone makes a convincing case otherwise. You decide.

In model 1 the President has leverage because he is willing to go where Congressional Republicans are not (over the cliff).

In model 1 the President would, in the last few days of December, compare Speaker Boehner’s last offer with what the President thinks he can get after a few weeks of January blame game, then decide whether or not to accept the offer or take us over the cliff.

In model 2 the President is bluffing quite effectively. He is risk averse, and he is also a savvy, patient, and skilled negotiator. Privately he knows that he cannot allow a no-bill scenario because a recession would seriously damage his second term. But he has bluffed Congressional Republicans into thinking he is willing to take that risk, and this bluff has given him tremendous leverage. His initial offer was outrageous but designed for maximum press benefit over the next few weeks. He will demonstrate to a willingly gullible press corps that he is reasonable by showing the significant negotiating concessions he has made (from an absurd starting point) in an attempt to get a deal with those extreeeeme Republicans.

In model 2 the President continues to leverage Congressional Republicans’ fear of being blamed for no bill to press them for incremental concessions without giving up anything meaningful in exchange. Yet the President would, at the last minute, accept Speaker Boehner’s last offer, because the President is also quite afraid of a no-bill scenario. We would never know that he was bluffing since there would be an agreement and a bill.

In model 3 the President is an unskilled and ineffective negotiator who cannot or will not close a deal with those eeeevil Republicans. In this model the President does not want to go over the cliff, he is genuinely afraid of a recession, and he thinks he is a savvy and skilled negotiator who is bluffing Republicans. But he fails to understand what Speaker Boehner needs to support a final deal, or he doesn’t care and is unwilling to give it to him. Or he fails to realize how hard this kind of legislative deal is to pull together, and he mistakenly thinks he can sit with his arms folded until the last minute and then it will all suddenly, magically come together.

In model 3 President Obama doesn’t know how to compromise or isn’t capable of it. He knows only win and loss.

Model 3 could arise from overconfidence: “You are more afraid of no bill than I am, so you have to do whatever I say” (not recognizing that Republicans have a third option available).

Model 3 could arise from a sense of entitlement, “I won, the people voted for me and I campaigned on this, so I should get my way, and you must give it to me.” But Speaker Boehner is not negotiating for himself. He is an agent, negotiating on behalf of 240 House Members and 47 Senate Republicans, and he is therefore limited in his ability to agree to certain things. There may be no overlap between what President Obama feels he deserves and what Speaker Boehner can or is willing to deliver.

Or model 3 could arise from a zero-sum mentality, an inability to understand that an agreement requires both sides be able to label a deal as a win. We know the President is an effective political combatant and candidate, and we have seen him be ruthlessly attack those with whom he disagrees.

Unlike his predecessors, President Obama has not achieved any positive-sum legislative compromises with the other party. His only major deals with Republicans were the extension of all tax rates two years ago and the summer 2011 budget deal. The President now defines both of those laws as mistakes and losses rather than as honorable compromises. He sees and frames them as the results of zero-sum negotiations in which Republicans forced him to accept bad policy outcomes. And now when he has leverage, he thinks and hopes he can turn the tables, not recognizing that he still needs Speaker Boehner and House Republican votes.

President Reagan did Social Security and tax reform deals with Democrats. President Bush 41 did a budget deal and the Americans with Disabilities Act with Democrats.  President Clinton did NATFA, and welfare reform, and a balanced budget with Republicans. President Bush did the 2001 tax cut, No Child Left Behind, Medicare, two energy bills, and TARP with Democrats. Each President defined these deals as success, as principled compromises, and both parties shared the credit.

President Obama has not negotiated a single win-win middle ground legislative compromise with the other political party. I fear he may not know how to do so or be unwilling to do so because he sees all his dealings with Congressional Republicans as pure zero-sum.

The scary part about model 3 is that the President might unwittingly kill an agreement, further inflame a nasty partisan blame game, and trigger a recession even though in this model that’s not the outcome he wants. In model 3 a different negotiator (say, Mr. Bowles) could find a middle ground that could pass both the House and Senate, but President Obama cannot or will not. Some combination of legislative inexperience, a distaste for interacting with Congress, and a naturally combative rather than cooperative temperament may hobble the President’s ability to close deals with those who have different policy priorities. And if model 3 is correct, in the next few weeks it could all go sideways because we have a President who doesn’t know how to or isn’t willing to negotiate.

It may be impossible for us to know which of these models applies to President Obama. I know this is an important question, and that a clear answer would not only allow us to analyze the current negotiation, but would increase the ability of other elected policymakers to deal effectively with the President over the next four years.

(photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)

30 thoughts on “What kind of negotiator is President Obama?”

  1. It’s Model 3, Keith, and you described it clearly. All of Model 3. My references are Richard Epstein, on two Uncommon Knowledge videos with Peter Robinson in 2008, I think. His analysis of Mr. Obama has proved accurate over time. Mr. Epstein also did a Reason video with Nick Gillespie. All three have much the same content. Richard Epstein knew Obama at the University of Chicago, and through his next-door neighbor who was Obama’s best friend. The other source is Edward Klein’s “The Amateur”, which is a straight reporter’s book. Klein doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyze, he just did a lot of interviews, and the picture that emerges from these two men is a straight Model 3. President Obama does hold a glorified opinion of himself and is sure that he is meant to do important things, including transforming America.

    I think the President plans to win. Empowered by the election (the misrepresentation and negative campaign don’t bother him at all— he won) he feels that he is presiding over the end of the Republican Party as a significant opposition. He has not the slightest intention of spending cuts, unless they are insignificant things that he doesn’t care about. Alan Reynolds said in National Review recently that :”Barack Obama doesn’t understand economics, and apparently refuses to listen to anyone who does.”I think that’s right on, as well.

    Obama does care about what we would call “his legacy.” He wouldn’t describe it in those terms. If negotiations are proceeding on the assumption that if we give a little, then he will, as Corker said, be willing to tackle entitlements, we’re barking up the wrong tree. Democrats don’t modify entitlements, that’s what they give people and cutting them is what they blame on Republicans. If they can convince Obama that he is sending us into a new recession, which will destroy his reputation, they might be able to make progress. Otherwise, I think we’re in trouble.

    Drennan Lindsay

    1. Richard Epstein discusses Barack Obama

      A transcript of Mr. Epstein’s interview (7:23) with Peter Robins of National Review: Uncommon Knowledge, about Barack Obama.

      Richard Epstein is the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1972. He was a colleague of Barack Obama when Obama taught as an instructor. Epstein had mutual friends with Obama, and talked to Obama about some issues. His main description is that Obama is under complete self-control.

      “Obama worked as a community organizer and was in many cases very constructive. He organized public/private partnerships to help the homeless and downtrodden.”

      “But, the difficulty you get, for someone who has only worked in that situation, is that he believes the creation of private wealth is something the government cannot influence or destroy. He has many fancy redistribution schemes, in addition to his health plan and new labor laws, which are all wealth killers.”

  2. Is there a relationship between Obama and Boehner? No. Obama does not respect the Republicans; Boehner & republican do not trust Obama.

    Lack of respect can be overcome but not likely without trust.

    Besides, Obama doesn’t care about a deal – he wants his way, period.

    Additionally, Obama knows that the press will not pressure him so why compromise.

  3. To say Obama is a Model 3 would be generous. Keep in mind, his background is uber-left, fascist, Marxist. He has limited career experience, voted present for the most part during his limited State government career, and his brief US Senate career. He trained mostly as a “community organizer” which in my research basically means an “AGITATOR”. He ran his 2nd term campaign basically on class warfare, essentially lying to his voters on the facts,(because the “ends justify the means” ) I suspect he is a spoiled, narcissistic brat, who thinks he knows all, but actually has no real life experience to back it up.. Remember earlier in the first term when he said during a negotiation session “I Won!”
    His entire life he was catered to; but denied that he ever received any special treatment. One of his early jobs of “community organizing” he was asked could he work in the lower income, ghetto if you will, poor black areas of Chicago. He did, but then drove into the Hyde Park neighborhood where he lived. But, he’s not above “using” his 1/2 black heritage, but I also believe he’s had a nose job to appear more Caucasian.

    He does not know what he is doing, (or he is on a malicious mission that none of us want to accept the real plans of) but he does put on a display of arrogance, and then wants to totally destroy his enemy. Not just win, but destroy.

    He has nothing but contempt for America. Faults America for all the ills of the World, but refuses to even acknowledge all of the good We have done for ourselves, technology, civilization, and our fellow human beings. He has never “belonged” anywhere, or to anyone. Everybody he connected with in his upbringing abandoned him at some point in his life, and I believe he lashes out because of this, and that he also has fantasized that he is living the fulfillment of some imagined martyrdom he envisions of those who disappointed him.

    I’ve spent 5 years researching this guy and the people he surrounds himself with.
    Personally, I think the man is dangerous. I think he is on a search and destroy mission, and won’t stop until he has put America “in it’s place.”

  4. I think we can safely rule out Model 2. There is no evidence to suggest he is a ‘savvy, patient, skilled negotiator.’ That leaves 1 & 3. I think the true model is a little of each. He is an unskilled and unsucessful negotiator, but he is also completely willing to go over the fiscal cliff. He does not feared being blamed for a new recession. He’s never gotten successfully tagged with the blame for anything, ever.

  5. Obama is a #3 who can only be successful with an adoring press that refuses to look at his flaws (and they are numerous). Obama wouldn’t have been re-elected if we had a Gingrich type Speaker of the House. With Boehner, he has a man willing to sign a deal as long as there is some little thing to sell. $60 billion over 10 years in cuts, in a $3+ trillion dollar budget, is pocket change, yet Boehner tries to sell it as significant. If he settles for anything less than $4 trillion in cuts and major entitlement and tax reform, he’s worthless.

  6. Option 3 comes closest, and Elephant’s Child and BigMama add important details. It is to the credit of their characters, and yours too Mr. Hennessey, that they and you appear unable to comprehend the depth of Obama’s cynicism. Obama is not negotiating, he’s manipulating– to get what he wants more than anything: POWER (and the kowtows that come with it). He’s playing a deeper game than you realize.

    To understand Obama’s character is to understand what he’s doing and why. Yes he’s a red diaper baby, but the key to him is that he’s a deeply dysfunctional human being with a controlling psychological flaw. Simply point your browser to Wikipedia (for a start), and search on “narcissism” and “narcissistic personality disorder”. The latter is a well documented, if not well understood entry in the DSM IV (search on that too).

    Obama’s thinking is this: I won. That’s all the mandate I need to do what I want. If Boehner caves on the 1% and I refuse spending cuts, I cut the R’s in two and cruise the next four years. If he doesn’t, we go over the fiscal cliff. Taxes rise on the rich… and skyrocket on the middle class. And it’ll be the R’s fault. Maybe we’ll slip into recession (Good!). And the unemployment rate will climb back to 10% or more (Better!). The misery index will be page one. I win either way.

    And I’ll spend the next two years in full-throttle campaign mode blaming it all on the Republicans. And my lickspittle admirers in the press will parrot that. (I couldn’t care less about actually governing- that’s boring and not what I do.) And it’ll work… after two years of nonstop propaganda, the 2014 midterms will wipe the Republicans out. I’ll have both houses of congress, and the nobodies in it will know they owe it all to me.

    1. “Obama’s thinking is this: I won.”

      “I won” is what Republicans in the House also should be thinking about the their own elections.

  7. He’s a three. No negotiating experience and surrounded by a staff with none and he doesn’t listen to those who do.
    Boehner’s best option is to walk away and tell the media exactly why. That story will be massaged to the message that the White House wants. When reality strikes in about a year, we will have the mid-term elections… Provided we survive.
    I’m wondering about that “flexibility” to deal with the Russians.

  8. Obama thrives on the chaos. He’s CREATING the chaos to make it seem as though he’s indispensably important. When there’s chaos, more people are scared and they’re more likely to welcome “extraordinary” government measures that they wouldn’t allow in more stable times. Obama’s ENTIRE career has been causing chaos. He spent how many years in Chicago doing whatever he did and the poverty never got better, the murders went up, the schools got worse, the taxes went up…And Obama got elected and promoted and elected again. It’s not that Obama doesn’t know how to solve a problem, to him, solving a problem IS the problem. Think about it: Who votes for Obama? Corrupt rich liberals (head of GE), government employees, and poor people. Obama is ONLY interested in creating more of these people. Hence the corrupt Stimulus loans to lefty causes (making lefties rich, screwing the middle clas taxpayer)…he’s grown government tremendously and he’s made millions more poor people. That’s his strategy. That’s what politicians do: they reward their constituents and they seek to make more consituents. Corrupting people, growing government and making everyone else dependent and poor is the FEATURE, not a bug. DUH.

  9. There is another model – Obama learned the primary lesson of his first term: The more fear, uncertainty and doubt that the he and other Democrats can create in the minds of the people and the economy, the more he and his elite ilk prosper.

    Obama and the Democrats ignored the constitutional requirement that the nation must have budget every year. They threw billions of “Stimulus dollars” in the general direction of the swirling flushing sound coming from the economy – and missed. They then spent over 17 months jamming the mystery that is PPACA down our throats.

    Obama and the Democrats prolonged the effects of the recession and created a ‘new normal’, marked by the unprecedented and ongoing decline of the American back-bone middle class, an economy maintained in constant crisis, wobbling dangerously between death and life-support, and a majority of the public that allowed themselves to be convinced that it’s all Bush’s fault.

    And the result: Obama got re-elected and the Democrats kept the Senate…

    Don’t think for a second that the ramifications and rationale (such as it is) of that victory are lost on Obama and his ilk. By every bit of democratic logic and history, he should have lost – but he didn’t.

    Obama now knows that he can do anything he wants to. Anything. And only two things will happen: His loyal media poodles and core supporters from the “streets” (East LA to Wall Street) will support him – and it doesn’t matter that his rich cronys/supporters are getting richer and the poor supporters are sinking further into their assured-Democrat-vote existences as Dependent-Americans.

    And second, the rest of America will, in all effect, do nothing.

    Take a step back and decide for yourself what he has become. President? Not so much. Remember when the president was known as the highest ranking public servant? Can you imagine referring to Obama a servant of the public? “Lord and savior” is more like it.

  10. Unlike his predecessors, President Obama has not achieved any positive-sum legislative compromises with the other party.

    He’s had precious few successful negotiations with his own party, while we’re on the subject. The Obamacare negotiations were long, drawn out, halting, and indecisive. They never really reached convergence — the bill they passed was simply the only alternative that bypassed the Senate after the Scott Brown election.

    1. Exactly. I suspect they’re hoping that if the economy gets bad enough, he and his Progressive allies will tell the people that a constitutional convention is necessary, and the people will go for it.

  11. I think you first have to question Obama’s motives and define what is success for him. Look at his background, his parents, his grandparents, influences on him growing up like Frank Marshall Davis. He is a student of Saul Alinsky and Cloward-Piven. What the average American wants for America is not what Obama wants for America IMO. He stated in the first presidential election that he wanted to fundamentally transform America. I think that he intends to do just that and we will be lucky if we only end up with a bankrupt European style socialist state. I think it could be much worse. This man may be arrogant and a narcissist, but he is NOT stupid. He knows what he is doing.

  12. Maybe a number 4? Which is to say, no negotiator at all, merely the Most Beneficent One who will bless whatever deal he can get.

    Early on, when Netanyahu and Abbas come to the WH and 0bama put them in a room and told them to work things out while he went and had dinner with the family was a harbinger of what was to come. Then, the stimulus deal, when he basically handed the whole mess off to Congress/Pelosi to dole out. Finally, the whole flap over the troop surge into Afghanistan. The military people wanted 60,000+ troops, 0bama’s people wanted something like 20,000 and 0bama Solomonically sent in 30,000. He makes decisions the way a third grader makes decisions. Not what is right or necessary but whatever quiets down the two sides.

  13. My sense is that Boehner was called to the White House yesterday for a dressing down. And why was Geithner in the meeting as well if prior negotiations was man to man?

    Scenario 3 sure rings true.

  14. obama is a cross between model 3 and a middle schoolyard bully. He bluffs, obfuscates and at the final hour when all that fails – as he always does- he threatens to let the world burn because it’s the right thing to do, whereby the sycophant media goes into an all out attack and redirects the blame back to his opponents.

  15. A quote from The Dark Knight explains Obamas mindset. Alfred Pennyworth: Well, because Some men just want to watch the world burn. He was raised to resent America and our way of life. He sees himself as the father of a new nation. One who is dependent on government for all things. He manipulates the working man and his followers into doing his biding. He has succeeded where many have tried. He owns the mandate of destruction of what we were. Now he will introduce us to our fate as a socialist nation, devoid of the freedoms that made us great.

  16. Model 4: The President is a shrewd and ruthless politician who’s more interested in making Republicans look bad than he is in solving budget problems.

  17. In your scenarios, Obama looks like a 1 because I expect we will go over the fiscal cliff. By doing that he will get a better deal for his side. NOTE This is not what is necessarily better for the people.

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