Is Obama as lousy a negotiator as liberals say?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 9, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama isn't a great negotiator.

He's not as bad as some liberals claimed this week when he gave in to Republican demands to extend tax breaks for the wealthy in order also to extend expiring tax cuts for the middle class and unemployment benefits.

But he's seldom been able to match the promise of his campaign, when his soaring rhetoric and ability to sway voters suggested he might do the same in Washington. He's had more luck in world capitals, such as in negotiating a new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia. Yet even in foreign policy, where a president has more leeway, he's found his ability to drive a grand bargain limited.

The key reason may have more to do with his office and his times than with the man himself. The truth is that on major issues, there's little any president can do to convince a member of Congress to change firmly held positions.

"He is not a great persuader," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University.

"He's just one in a long line. They never persuade. It never works. Like many new presidents, he came in thinking he could. That's exactly what happened to George W. Bush. It happened to Clinton. But bargaining is something else."

In his tentative deal to extend the tax cuts, liberals argue that he caved too quickly to Republican demands that the rich get their tax reductions extended or no one would.

Many liberals argued that Obama should have risked letting all the cuts expire as scheduled Dec. 31, then take his case to the people to build pressure on Congress to extend only tax reductions on incomes below $250,000. They cited polls that found majorities support them.

"I think sometimes he doesn't realize how many arrows he has in his quiver. I don't think he fights sometimes enough for the things he believes in," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. "Too often, he gives in too easily."

"Selling out," liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann said. "Searing and transcendent capitulation."

Obama said he had no choice if he was to keep the cuts going for the middle class, lest rising tax rates hurt those people and the economy.

"The fact of the matter is, I haven't persuaded the Republican Party," he said. "I haven't persuaded Mitch McConnell and I haven't persuaded John Boehner. And if I can't persuade them, then I've got to look at what is the best thing to do, given that reality, for the American people and for jobs."

If the reputation takes hold that he gave in too much or too quickly, it could weaken him in further negotiations with Congress, some analysts said.

"He has the image of giving away the store. That doesn't look good," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "If he looks like he's responding to events and negotiating out of weakness, it won't help him. ... He's not exactly been a Lyndon Johnson in dealing with Congress."

Johnson is considered the model of presidential wheeling and dealing with Congress. A former Senate majority leader, Johnson knew how Congress worked, and he muscled a breathtaking liberal agenda, including Medicare and civil rights legislation, through Congress in 1964 and 1965.

During their battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton used the legacy of Johnson against Obama, noting acidly that while Martin Luther King had a dream of civil rights, it took a skillful president such as Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress.

Yet Edwards argued that it's unfair to Obama — or other presidents, for that matter — to be held to the LBJ-inspired notion of president as deal-maker extraordinaire.

More than changing votes, Johnson saw that he had a moment of opportunity to push his Great Society agenda through Congress, particularly after a Democratic landslide in 1964 gave him huge Democratic majorities for the next two years.

Similarly, Edwards said, Franklin D. Roosevelt seized the chance when he called Congress into special session in 1933, saw that it would give him almost anything, then kept it in session for a hundred days to enact what became the bedrock of the New Deal.

"None of them are remarkable persuaders. There are many more important things that affect how a member of Congress votes, especially when ideology is as important as it is today," Edwards said.

"The essence of leadership is not persuasion. Real leadership is recognizing and exploiting opportunities like Johnson did, like FDR did."

Obama saw opportunity his first year, with a solid majority in the House of Representatives and, briefly, a 60-vote majority in the Senate. He used it to push through a massive package of spending and tax cuts to stimulate the economy, a sweeping health care overhaul and regulation of Wall Street.

By last summer, he'd exhausted that opportunity. He tried to bargain with Congress, but came up short. In one gambit, he opened more of the Gulf of Mexico to deepwater oil drilling, hoping to win support from pro-drilling Republicans for an energy bill designed to curb climate change. It never produced a law and he eventually abandoned deepwater drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill.

In foreign policy, Obama has had one notable flop as a negotiator: his attempt to jump-start Mideast peace talks by pressuring Israel to stop construction on housing settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank.

He did find some success as a negotiator overseas by working to improve relations with Russia, which had grown strained.

Last year, he decided to stop work on missile defense installations in Europe that were meant to defend against an Iranian missile attack but were close enough to Russia to alarm Moscow. At first, he appeared to get nothing from Russia in return, prompting criticism that he'd negotiated away a bargaining chip for nothing.

Since then, however, Russia's agreed to halt its planned sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, agreed to a new missile-defense plan with NATO at a summit last month in Lisbon, Portugal, and signed the New START treaty to limit and control nuclear warheads.

Heather Conley, an expert on Europe and Russia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research organization, said stopping the missile defense work in the Czech Republic and Poland last year was a key opening bid in the negotiation.

"It did remove a significant irritant in the U.S.-Russia relationship," she said.

While presidents seldom get personally involved in international bargaining until the end, she said Obama often was involved in the New START treaty.

"There were frequent phone calls, several meetings," she said. "He was personally engaged to make sure the treaty moved along. For my money, it was his most significant negotiated agreement."

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