Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Obama's Negotiating Strategy

The Nodding Heads of the Village agree that Drew Westen has written a Very Bad Thing in his editorial this weekend that criticized President Obama. In the essay, Westen accuses Obama of having taken his eyes off the ball during several major domestic crises: the banking bailout, stimulus act, healthcare act, tax extensions and this month's debt ceiling increase. In failing to use the bully pulpit effectively, he's emboldened his enemies and dismayed his allies. He's allowed the Republican narrative to run unopposed, and encouraged the Nodding Heads themselves to use the "both sides are at fault" position. Instead, Obama should use FDR as a model, and inspire the country and the Congress with his ideas.

Nonsense, says Jonathan Chait, FDR did nothing of the sort. It's a fairy tale, says Andrew Sullivan, Obama's doing just fine running things from the center. Andrew Sprung and Ezra Klein both respond with a combination of "Obama deserves partial credit" and "Pushing harder in the face of intransigence is counterproductive."

There may also be a bit of reflexive liberal bashing and anti-Krugman sentiment going on, but that could just be my imagination. It's equally possible that they simply think that the very strong criticisms from the right have little merit that there are no reasonable criticisms of Obama from the left; that if one's enemies aren't able to criticise usefully, one's friend's cannot do any better.

The countercritique suggests that either the President is utterly powerless to affect the outcome of a policy debate regardless of any strategy he might take, or that he's already hit upon the best possible negotiating strategy. I can believe neither of these things.

I cannot believe the proposition that there is nothing to be done in the face of a unified opposition, because it ignores a lengthy empirical record of negotiations and political infighting. We have, as a people, been in hard situations before. We've seen good horse traders and bad, good leaders and bad. We've also developed a useful toolbox of techniques for dealing with uncooperative people. It's useful for us to know these things, as it's useful to know self-defense in case we get into a fight.

We could, as an alternative, just collapse any time someone makes a fist in our direction, or we can prepare ahead of time, take some self-defense classes, and have an idea of what to do when someone tries to mug us. Likewise, when we know we're in a hard negotiation, we can either capitulate or we can use appropriate and skillful means to try to achieve our ends. If our ends are good, then we must be skillful in the use of such means as are available to us to achieve those ends. To repeatedly state that "if you don't do what I tell you, then I'm absolutely not going to even threaten to do anything," will lead to poor results.

In the second case, I do not believe that Obama has found the optimal negotiating strategy for the long term due to the side effects of the strategy he's chosen. The strategy is in part to begin with a "compromise" position and to compromise flexibly with the Congressional leadership in an attempt to gain the necessary votes on a given piece of legislation. The easy negotiating stance fits well with President Obama's character, and has resulted in successful pieces of legislation passing both houses--so he earns partial credit for that. The side effects, though, are horrendous. Obama's softness means that the Republicans are consistently rewarded for bad behavior, while the Democrats can be sure that the President will undercut any firm position they may take. Because he's willing to pay high ransom without complaint, future ransoms will be larger. Because he's never openly punished anyone for opposing him, there's no need to hold back for fear that this will happen in the future.

How might he do better in the future?

First: lean against the wind. Start extra big, extra far to the left. See how much you can get away with. Be daring. Second: give ground grudgingly. Make the opponent do a lot of work to move forward even an inch. Third: Make them pay for everything. Fourth: Prove that you want to win so much that you're prepared to do whatever it takes. Have a temper tantrum once in a while. Prove that you, too, can be crazy, if that's what it takes to get your way.

Show us how it really should be done.

Previously: What Happened to Obama?

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