Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Obama the Negotiator

There’s some nonsense in this column by David Frum, but the last part strikes me as spot on:

It’s really striking that any time the president inserts himself into a negotiation, he ends up with zero results and all parties mad at him. The Middle East may be the most extreme case, but there are domestic counterparts, too.

When he negotiated the renewal of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, why didn’t he get himself an increase in the debt ceiling at the same time? The tax cuts expanded the deficit beyond what it otherwise would have been. Republicans dearly wanted the tax cuts extended and would have paid for them. But no.

That’s a good question. He continues:

In this round of debt negotiations, the president has drawn red lines. He has threatened to veto a small increase in the debt ceiling, one that would force him to return to the argument before the election in 2012. By contrast, he has not threatened to veto debt-ceiling measures that cut too deeply into social programs. His red lines are drawn for his political advantage — not to protect his core supporters’ values and interests. His red lines are not theirs.

Whether it was health care or the deficit or now the debt ceiling, direct encounters between Obama and his Republican opposite numbers have always ended badly for the president. Yes, the president faces unusually extreme and intransigent opposition. But that’s a description of the difficulty, not an excuse for failure. Presidents win negotiations when they can mobilize the public behind them. That was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon in 1981. It has never been Barack Obama’s. And the results are as we all see.

Obama has proven himself to be a terrible negotiator, time and again starting from a position way too far over near what his opponents want. It started with health care reform, when he himself ruled out nationalization and single payer from the very start so that what he ended up with was quite close to what the Republicans themselves were proposing in 1993.

The negotiations over the Bush tax cuts ended up giving the Republicans nearly everything they wanted, making the debt far worse while still allowing his opponents to blame him for it. His opening move seems to be along the lines of, “Okay, I’ll give you 80% of what you want.” And then he ends up settling for 90% of what they want.

One of the clear differences between Republicans and Democrats is how they wield power once they get it. The Republicans get into power, as they did in many states this January, and they go for broke. They push their agenda through swiftly and strongly and they don’t care what the polls say. They know they have a limited window in which to work before the backlash begins and they slash and burn to get it done. Republicans don’t even have to control the legislature to control the agenda; one chamber of Congress will do just fine. Obama has let them control the agenda from the start.

And here’s the thing that makes it all make no sense at all: The public is on his side. On the policy issues, the public was strongly against the Republican position on the Bush tax cuts and strongly on Obama’s side. On the debt ceiling issue, the public is strongly against the Republican position and strongly on Obama’s side. And yet he still comes out of it looking like a weak bystander and the GOP still gets nearly everything they want.