The New York Times reports today that the president is "scarred by failed negotiations in his first term and emboldened by a clear if close election to a second, has emerged as a different kind of negotiator." Throughout his first term, Obama "repeatedly offered what he considered compromises on stimulus spending, health care and deficit reduction to Republicans, who either rejected them as inadequate or pocketed them and insisted on more."Most readers here know that I find Benen to be one of the best writers on the internet. But on this one, I have to disagree.
So, this time, the president presented a plan that met his own standards, and challenged GOP leaders to do the same.
To understand President Obama's positioning on these negotiations, you have to understand the concept of leverage. Here's Joe Markowitz - a professional negotiator - explaining it.
This is basic Negotiation 101. If you MUST make a deal, you are going to have to compromise, because the other side knows you must make a deal. And therefore you probably won't get your best deal, but you will get something accomplished. On the other hand, if you can afford to walk away from a deal, you can also afford to be uncompromising, because you win either way. Either you make the deal you want, or you blame the other side for the failure to conclude the negotiation.In other words, the most powerful leverage in negotiations is the ability to WALK AWAY from a deal.
Most of President Obama's accomplishments during his first term were deals the Republicans decided they could walk away from (more than that, their goal was to obstruct any/everything he tried) but he couldn't if he wanted to actually get something done...stimulus, health care reform, Wall Street reform, etc. And so the President needed to compromise (most often with Democrats) to get enough votes to pass those things.
The beauty of the debt ceiling deal is that it led to these negotiations that the President is willing to walk away from but the Republicans cannot - and that gives him the leverage. Here's Jonathan Chait explaining what walking away would look like.
On the morning of November 7, a reelected President Obama will do … nothing. For the next 53 days, nothing. And then, on January 1, 2013, we will all awake to a different, substantially more liberal country. The Bush tax cuts will have disappeared, restoring Clinton-era tax rates and flooding government coffers with revenue to fund its current operations for years to come. The military will be facing dire budget cuts that shake the military-industrial complex to its core. It will be a real-world approximation of the old liberal bumper-sticker fantasy in which schools have all the money they require and the Pentagon needs to hold a bake sale.Many are suggesting that it was Obama's re-election that gave him the leverage. But I'd call that momentum rather than leverage. The Republicans have shown over and over again that they are willing to take legislative positions that go against what the majority of people support. Republicans in the House who are elected from solid red districts really don't have to worry about that. They're much more concerned about the leverage of a tea party primary.
All this can come to pass because, while Obama has spent the last two years surrendering short-term policy concessions, he has been quietly hoarding a fortune in the equivalent of a political trust fund that comes due on the first of the year. At that point, he will reside in a political world he finds at most mildly uncomfortable and the Republicans consider a hellish dystopia.
And so what I would argue is that the change we see in the President's negotiating style is a reflection his awareness that on this one - he has the leverage. He and the Democrats created that via their superior negotiating on the debt ceiling deal.
To miss that as the important difference here is to not only miss the long game, it also misses that there are likely to be times in the future when the President reverts to his previous style because he lacks the leverage. For example, right now Speaker Boehner is promising to use the debt ceiling as a hostage in perpetuity.
Congress is never going to give up this power. I've made it clear to the president that every time we get to the debt limit, we need cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit. It's the only way to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would if left alone.If Boehner actually continues to play that hand, President Obama will be forced to compromise unless and until we give him a majority in the House. He cannot walk away from negotiations that would send the world economy into collapse. Like it or not - that's Boehner's leverage.