Obama's Negotiating Skill Deficit

One central fact is missing in the current debate between increasing taxes and fixing entitlement programs : for the last several years the national Democrats have repeatedly shown an inability to get into the room with the Republicans and make a deal.  Pelosi ran the House without any pretense of including Republicans in deliberations; Harry Reid has been bypassed in favor of rump groups; and, most importantly, President Obama gives speeches and and holds press conferences but does not have the skills or disposition to get together with his adversaries and cut a deal. Most attribute this to political calculation; a better explanation is his lack of experience in business, as a governor, or even as a legislative leader as well as to personal psychological factors.

The deficiency has been evident for several years as the Democrats in power have been uninterested or unable to manage the basic give and take of budget negotiations.  Nancy Pelosi sought her speakership in 2006 touting “PayGo“, the premise that any increase in spending had to be offset by a decrease elsewhere; by her last year as Speaker she didn’t even bother to propose a budget (a fundamental duty of the House), relying instead on “Continuing Resolutions” to keep on keeping on.  In the Senate Harry Reid is worse, not attempting a budget in the past two years. And Barack Obama – whose last budget proposal was defeated 97 – 0 in the Senate?  Well, in an act of bureaucratic suicide the non-partisan leader of the Congressional Budget Office has declared that you can’t “score” a speech and he has no idea of the fiscal implications of Obama’s proposals.

The next few weeks will be very important for the country and for Barack Obama’s presidency. The debt limit increase dances of the Senate’s “Gang of Six” and Joe Biden’s coterie are over and the House Republicans have rightly demanded that our “Mediator in Chief” become directly involved. Harry Reid has publicly expressed his sadness that as Senate Majority Leader he must participate. Obama will first see if he can work something with Mitch McConnell in the Senate, but he knows that the Republican power lies in the House and that eventually he must confront Paul Ryan‘s budgetary mind directly or through Speaker Boehner.  Like a Greek tragedy, this has been building since Ryan dismantled Obama during the health care debates. Pelosi understands what will happen to Obama in this arena and wants in to protect him – but her day has passed. (As a former leader of purchasing for two large corporations I considered myself a good analyst and strategist, but a mediocre negotiator. I feel Obama’s pain in being forced into a situation where he knows that he is over-matched.)

Those wondering what the “bottom line” Republican negoting position really is should look to Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal – passed by the House but ignored by the Senate and demagogued by Obama. In it one will find a rework of the corporate tax code to eliminate loopholes as well as a first pass on fixing Medicare. He left Social Security reform and tax rate increases out, expecting that to be in the counter-offer which never came.

This deal making works out differently in the states where balanced budgets are a requirement. In some like Wisconsin or New York, where one party controls the legislature and the governorship, it has been mostly a matter of lining up the faithful. In others – Michigan, Florida, Ohio, California – there has been  more requirement to reach across the aisle. Each has its own dynamic, but success has come to those who can identify core requirements of their supporters and adversaries, figure out who can deliver on agreements, agree to give in order to get, shake hands on a deal, and mutually sell the compromise to the voters.  What is most striking in listening to Chris Cristie  was his ability to explain the state’s financial problems to the voters and the opposition, work with Democratic leaders of the New Jersey senate and assembly, give up on some of the things that he wanted (by limiting the pension agreement to four years for example), and operating on the premise that his opponents were good people looking to do what was needed.

Obama does not need to be a Christie. He has never done it, is afraid of doing it, and avoids it to the end. He prefers to give speeches or confer with allies, but even then he lets them resolve their differences – on health care, on the stimulus, on the deficit. It should have been apparent from reading Obama’s autobiography, “Dreams From My Father“, that he could eloquently frame an issue, but that he could not directly negotiate with opponents. At this point in our history, America needs to have him be  dragged into the room.


This week’s video on gas prices comes courtesy of a vigilant reader in Wisconsin.