From the first few months of Barack Obama’s presidency, a meme developed (mostly among pundits and some on the left) that he was a bad negotiator. With a little over a year to go in his term and the success of his most significant foreign policy achievement to date secured, I think it’s time to revisit that assessment.
The critiques started with the negotiations that took place over the first stimulus bill because it was too small and too heavily loaded with tax cuts. It has always been my contention that – given we were losing approximately 700,000 jobs per month and the fact that President Obama signed it 28 days after he was inaugurated – time was of the essence. Since Sen. Specter hadn’t changed parties and Sen. Franken’s election was caught up in a recount, the President was required to negotiate not only with Democrats like Joe Lieberman, he needed at least a couple of Republicans on board. He did what he had to in order to get it done…fast.
The next round was all about health care reform. I still hear people criticize Obama for not opening those negotiations with a proposal for single payer. That always makes me wonder if they were paying attention during the 2008 campaign. President Obama was clear that – while he would have preferred single payer if we were starting from a clean slate – it would be too disruptive given our current system. Both he and Hillary Clinton laid out fairly specific plans about health care reform during the primary and general election. What he did was start the negotiations with what he had proposed. The 60 votes Democrats had in the Senate didn’t shield him from having to negotiate given the resistance he got from Senators like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln.
But perhaps the biggest critiques of his negotiating skills happened after the 2010 midterm elections when he was forced to negotiate with Speaker John Boehner to pass budgets and avoid several hostage situations the Republicans set up over the debt ceiling, “fiscal cliff,” etc. One thing to keep in mind when assessing the President’s performance is that it is important to distinguish between a disagreement about goals from a critique of his negotiating skills. Many people fault him for engaging in attempts to reduce the federal budget deficit while the country was still recovering from the Great Recession. That is a valid critique that should be evaluated separately. Given that President Obama set out with the goal of reducing the federal deficit via a balance between spending cuts and revenue increases, to evaluate his negotiating skills it is important to look at the outcomes relative to that goal.
Here’s where it is interesting to take a broader look at how the President approaches negotiations – both with Congress and in reaching a deal with Iran over their nuclear program. Back in March of 2012, President Obama sat down for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg about our relationship with both Israel and Iran. It’s interesting to go back and read that one in hindsight. But here’s a fascinating statement he made at the time.
I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.
People have often suggested that a way to evaluate the President’s negotiating skills is to compare them to a poker game. If that was the case, he just failed when he said he doesn’t bluff. But the question is whether or not a poker game is a good analogy. President Obama suggested that having the integrity that “we mean what we say” was more important, all while not necessarily “advertising exactly what our intentions are” (perhaps a better analogy would be chess).
That reminds me of the negotiations over the FY 2011 budget. President Obama didn’t bluff…he made it clear that he was willing to cut spending in order to get some additional stimulus in return. When the final deal was announced, Republicans spiked the ball and Democrats moaned that the President had caved. But when the actual details were released, all that changed. Eventually the Republicans realized they’d been taken.
So the budget deal is supposed to deliver $38 billion in spending cuts, including $20 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary spending…Based on news accounts, quite a lot of that $20 billion could be phony: $6.2 billion in unspent money for the Census; $2.5 billion of highway funds that couldn’t be spent; $3.5 billion of unused spending authority in a children’s health-care program. Is it possible that Republicans have gone from $61 billion in domestic discretionary savings all the way down to $8 billion?
Instead of a hard-nosed approach to negotiations (which would have only intensified gridlock), President Obama had outsmarted them by not necessarily advertising what his intentions were. I honestly think that Speaker Boehner and his staff were simply looking for a dollar amount in spending cuts they could brag about and failed to look into the details of what was actually being cut. As it turned out – not much.
Perhaps it was the sting of that defeat that led Speaker Boehner to actually walk away from the next round of negotiations over a Grand Bargain. The result of that was the infamous “sequester” that is perhaps President Obama’s least successful round of negotiations. In hindsight, he probably would have been better off to call the Republican’s bluff on the debt ceiling (the way he did the next time they brought it up). But it is also true that Speaker Boehner once again spiked the ball a bit prematurely with his “I got 98% of what I wanted.”
When it comes to that attempt to forge a Grand Bargain with Republicans, I think about what President Obama said to Tom Friedman about engagement with countries like Iran, Cuba and Burma.
Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities.
I won’t be the first person to note how interesting it is that – as it turns out – taking calculated risks with Iran has produced more positive outcomes for this country than it has with Republicans. But it strikes me that what we often leave out of discussions about negotiations is that they go nowhere unless someone is willing to take a risk. While many are likely to say that the goal of a Grand Bargain was a mistake in the first place, the fact of the matter is that President Obama took a risk and embraced the old saying of “go big or go home” in attempting to negotiate one. That is a position that is rooted in self-confidence rather than weakness.
Now we have President Obama (and his amazing team led by Sec. of State John Kerry) negotiating what some have called “one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of the nuclear age” with the Iran deal. Not only that, they also successfully negotiated a deal with Sen. Corker that kept Republicans from being able to block it. Take a look at how the deal’s opponents described that one:
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) negotiated with Obama comes up for a vote in the Senate this week. It is a terrible bill that virtually guarantees that Congress will give its de facto stamp of approval to any agreement Obama concludes with Iran.
The reason is simple: Instead of requiring that Congress vote to affirmatively approve any Obama-Iran agreement before it can take effect, the Corker-Cardin bill allows the agreement to take effect unless it is disapproved by Congress.
With all that information, I’m going to let you reach your own conclusions about President Obama’s skills as a negotiator. But I will say this…early reports that he was weak in that area need to be re-examined.