No, Obama is not a good negotiator

President Obama is a good orator, a good communicator, a visionary and a thinker. But he is just not good at striking a good deal with the opposition on matters of policy. He often compromises his advantage before the other side has shown their hand.

This was evident in the health care debate when he gave up on the public option—a government run health care agency which would compete with the other health care agencies—which he campaigned for in 2008. The Republicans had not so much as presented their plan at the time. In fact they never did present an alternative. Instead of using the public option as an exemplification of free market capitalism and bludgeoning the opposition with it, he pretty much gave up the argument, conceding defeat before the debate began. The apparent reason for the unilateral compromise was to get bi-partisan support. In the end merely three Republican senators joined the Democrats in supporting the Affordable Health Care Act.

The debt ceiling fight in 2011 is another example of his inability to use his leverage. Instead of showing up the Republicans for their intransigence in refusal to raise taxes he offered them a “compromise” of three times the spending cuts as tax increases.

At a time when it would have been easy to explain the stimulative effects of spending increases, he tried to strike a broad deficit cutting deal with the Republicans. Fortunately, Republican inflexibility prevented the deal from being adopted.

Yet again, in recent times, with the battle over gun control, the President tried to compromise by meeting the Republicans mid-way and giving up on a complete ban on assault weapons and merely seeking comprehensive background checks. It was a telling statement on his negotiability that he was not able to muster the 60 votes required to pass the bill. Maureen Dowd in her New York Times editorial asked the crucial question, “How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate?” Isn’t it ironical that Obama won re-election by making an issue of the Republican party’s uncompromising political stance? He believes he can use emotion to sway the opposition. He discounts the influence of political lobbies.

Obama believes that if he compromises, then the opposition will follow suit. Obama has not understood the nature of the beast he is dealing with. The Republican party is made of two main segments—the faction which rejects evolution and the medieval wing that rejects global warming. There can be no negotiation with people with unreasonable ideas. How can there be a compromise on the size and role of government when one group is trying to deliver the most efficient government while the other is intent on destroying the government entirely.

So President Obama needs to go into his campaigning mode and persuade the opposition to act, instead of giving away strategic leverage and putting the middle class in a compromising position.

Mani Subramani works in the sem-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.


Yes, Obama is a good negotiator

Since history repeats itself, we should reflect on the work of the last president from Illinois, President Lincoln in order to understand the possible impact of President Obama’s work. Lincoln’s reputation rose from contemporary condemnation to eventual validation and veneration. Lincoln’s slow and steady victories rested on his ability to rise above the daily din and focus on a long term vision and pursue the same through skilful engagement of the opponents and persuasiveness—the same qualities that define Obama.

As demonstrated with the Lincoln legacy, success is better reflected in incremental progress rather than immediate victories. The negotiation process is often a reflection of how well two sides choose to eventually tango after the initial and obligatory tangling. Obama’s ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by preventing America from going over the financial cliff more than once is a tribute to his negotiating abilities.

Good negotiation alternates between conceding and conquering depending on the relative strengths of the negotiators. In June 2011, Obama realized conceded ground to the Tea Party in order to preserve the larger goal of preventing the financial cliff. However, in 2013, with the Tea Party on the wane, and a strong second mandate, Obama did what a steely and good negotiator would—he stared the Republicans in the eye, refused to blink and challenged them to raise taxes on everybody when revisiting the crisis. The results: minimal spending cuts coupled with a boost in tax rates—both anathema to the Republicans. In true Flying Dutchman style, when the dispute over the suspension of the debt ceiling rears its head again, on May 19, 2013, I believe Obama will push the Republicans towards the wall incrementally but not dramatically.

A negotiator needs to be able to design and access alternative methodologies to achieve one’s goals, a move that the President has proved to be adept at, especially when it comes to advancing progressive social policies. Obama reengineered the make-up of the Supreme Court, shaping the thought platform to be on the forefront of progressive social agenda and bypassing the righteous rightwingers who lack popular support but have the numbers to slay progressive legislation. The appointments of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan translated into surprise victories, just as the overhauling of the Health Care Act was.

True, he was not very successful with legislating background checks on gun control, however, Obama is a man of patience and the chapter on gun control is not over as yet. Obama’s strategy may not have the dramatic flair of his oratory skills, but results in slow, steady and sustainable victories, which, I believe, history will look upon favorably.

Toronto based S.Gopikrishna writes on issues of pertinence to Indians and Indian-Americans.

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