Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Obama Method

These days lots of political pundits are either trying to game out how President Obama will avoid negotiating with Republicans over the debt ceiling (which he has promised to do) or they are busy giving him advice about how to avoid it. The truth is - this is going to be a tough call. The President of the United States has the obligation to maintain the full faith and credit of this country. He also has the responsibility to do everything he can to avoid another great recession.

And yet the Republicans are threatening to challenge all of that if they don't get their way on basically gutting things like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The hostage in this scenario is the American (and world) economy. The ransom being demanded by the hostage-takers is basically the entire New Deal. Those are the stakes. And its critically important for the American people to understand what the Republicans are doing.

One of the most interesting things I've read about all this comes from Greg Sargent. Much like I did last time Republicans pulled this stunt, he talked to an actual police hostage negotiator to get advice.
A hostage negotiator needs to persuade a hostage taker that he is totally isolated and that the negotiator is the only one who holds the key to his way out — that “deep down, he is not in control of the situation.”
As I was reading that - I thought of the similarities of dealing with a situation like this and what the President has been faced with in dealing with Iran over their attempts to get nuclear weapons. That is a comparison that Jonathan Chait made a few years ago when he described the "Obama Method." I know Chait has gone a bit "hair on fire" lately about President Obama. But back then I think he nailed it.
Obama's method begins with attempts to find common ground, expressions of respect for the adversary's core beliefs, and profuse hope for cooperation...

This rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict-- red state versus blue state, Islam versus America--and puts it onto specific questions--Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified?-- where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherents of the opposing camp... 
This is a perfect summation of Obama's strategy. It does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties.
So if that is Obama's method, we might look to how he described his approach to dealing with Iran (and Israel) in order to predict how he is likely to handle this hostage situation with the Republicans. Here are some excerpts from the President's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg about that.
We, immediately upon taking over, mapped out a strategy that said we are going to mobilize the international community around this issue and isolate Iran to send a clear message to them that there is a path they can follow that allows them to rejoin the community of nations, but if they refused to follow that path, that there would be an escalating series of consequences...

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... 
...our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table...

I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this [Iran] is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing...They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision...

My point here is not that I believe the sincerity of the statements coming out of the [Iranian] regime. The point is that for them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons, is not inconsistent with what they've said. So it doesn't require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements. And that's something they should be able to do without losing face.
If you read through all of that and substitute "Republicans" for "Iranians" and the "debt ceiling" for "nuclear weapons," I would suggest that you have a pretty good read on how President Obama will approach this. And I suspect that he'll be laying the groundwork for all of that in this inaugural address and State of the Union Speech. It should come as no surprise that the whole process matches up perfectly with what professional hostage negotiators do.


  1. Can we substitute Wall Street and CEO's for International Community? Is it possible that the President has been doing a lot of persuasion with these people to get them to help 'isolate' the GOP and get passed these insane positions the GOP keeps adopting?

    Great stuff, Smartypants

    1. I remember he was talking to big business types after the election. They came to him with their hat in hand since the guy they supported lost badly. I believe he's been turning everyone against the GOP.


  2. I hear a lot of criticism of Obama that says he thinks he can win anyone over if he just talks with them. I think this is a severe misunderstanding of his method. His conciliatory tone is not meant to win over the most extreme elements of the opposition. It is meant to *isolate* those elements by making his more reasonable opponents uncomfortable being associated with the extremists.

    This ties into the whole hostage negotiation strategy that says you have to get the hostage taker to believe that you are the only hope they have to get out of a hopeless situation.

  3. . It does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties.


  4. Iran doesn't seem like a good example of anything. The US has acted with obvious bad faith with their unprecedented campaign of cybersabotage and a public refusal to remove any sanctions until Iran unconditionally surrenders its nuclear stockpile. The US and Europe are just as intransigent in trying to save face as the Iranians are.

  5. I like this. Good analysis SmartyP!



why i've been awol

i'm so sorry to have been awol lately. on sunday i fell and broke my wrist. right now i'm limited to one hand typing - hence the lac...