Saturday, December 1, 2012

Obama, the Mediator?

Last Thursday Mitt Romney’s political career ended in the White House.

As a defeated Republican, a man with no constituency and no power, Romney was Barack Obama’s kind of Republican. So Obama invited him for lunch.

Peggy Noonan describes Romney well:

Mr. Romney is not the leader of the party; he left no footprints in the sand. There is no such thing as Romneyism, no movement of which he's the standard-bearer. Nor is he a Washington figure with followers. Party leaders already view him as a kind of accident, the best of a bad 2012 lot, a hiccup. The bottom-line attitude of Republican political pros: Look, this is a man who's lived a good life and would have been a heck of a lot better than Obama, and I backed him. But to be a successful Republican president now requires a kind of political genius, and he didn't have it and wasn't going to develop it. His flaws as a candidate would have been his flaws as president. We dodged a bullet.

More important and more relevant, Noonan suggests, is that Obama was not sitting down with John Boehner, the man with whom he ought to be negotiating the “fiscal cliff.”

In Noonan’s words:

To the extent the GOP has an elected face, it is that of Speaker John Boehner. And he is precisely the man with whom Mr. Obama should be having friendly lunches. In fact, the meal with Mitt just may be a clever attempt to obscure the fact that the president isn't really meeting with those with whom he's supposed to be thrashing out the fiscal cliff.

When last we looked, Congressional Republicans had made a conciliatory gesture toward the president. They had opened the negotiations by saying that they would be willing to find ways to raise more revenues in exchange for meaningful entitlement reform.

Obama responded as though he were a predator who had just seen a sign of weakness. He upped his demands. He did not move toward the middle. He did not extend a hand of friendship. He clenched his political fist, demanded Republican acquiescence and threatened reprisals.

The Economist noticed the Obama tactic:

As of yesterday, Barack Obama, the great mediator, appears to have left the building. Theproposal his administration has offered Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff is a frankly Democratic proposal, reflecting Democratic priorities and economic beliefs. Mr Obama offers to achieve the necessary deficit reduction by raising $1.6 trillion in taxes over ten years, almost entirely from the rich, and by cutting up to $400 billion from the Medicare budget, if Republicans can come up with a proposal to do so. At the same time, the proposal extends the suspension of payroll taxes and long-term unemployment insurance, both measures targeted to aid the poor and middle class, and designed to minimise the contractionary hit the still-fragile US economic recovery will take next year if current law is not changed. This is progressive taxation and spending policy designed to reduce income inequality and protect the social safety net, reflecting a Keynesian belief in counter-cyclical economic policy focused on protecting demand by sparing the taxpayers most likely to spend rather than save. It's precisely what one might expect from a Democratic administration.

In truth, Obama never was the great mediator. He has never  conducted a successful negotiation. He has happily talked in conciliatory tones, but he has NEVER put together a deal that required him to find a middle ground.

The Economist described Barack the mediator as follows:

The inclination to bridge ideological and partisan gaps became the defining trait of Mr Obama's character and of his political career. David Remnick, in his biography "The Bridge", wrote that during Mr Obama's time in the Senate, "conciliation was his default mode, the dominant strain of his political personality." In his 2008 speech on race, in his televised meetings with Republicans during the Obamacare negotiations, and in his meetings with Wall Street titans, Mr Obama has displayed the same pattern Mr Berenson recognised: first, he voices the concerns of the opposition in order to make it clear he understands and to some extent shares them. Then he puts forward a proposal he views as an acceptable compromise

The examples The Economist chooses involve speeches that Obama has given, coupled with its own fantasies. An "inclination" does not make anyone a mediator.Like many of those who are congenitally incapable to see Obama as he is, The Economist mistakes talk for action.

In truth, Obama never really offered an acceptable compromise on any issue. If he had he would have been championed by Wall Street titans. He was not. If he had offered an acceptable compromise on Obamacare he would have received more than zero Republican votes.

Take a look at the Obama record:

Bob Woodward has chronicled Obama’s failure to negotiate a budget agreement.

Obama’s  signature legislative achievements were passed entirely on party line votes.

Michael Gordon explained in The New York Times that Obama bungled the negotiations over a status of forces agreement in Iraq.

The recent United Nations vote on Palestine must count as failed diplomacy.

We now know that the cease-fire that Obama just helped negotiate between Israel and Gaza was an Egyptian ploy designed to consolidate the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

A successful negotiator knows that negotiation only works if both parties feel that they have won something. Perhaps not everything, but certainly not nothing. A competent negotiator always leaves his counterpart with a way to save face.

Obama sees negotiation as a zero-sum game: with one winner and loser. He can be gracious to a loser like Mitt Romney, but that’s because the presence of a defeated adversary stokes his fragile ego.

Obama’s lunch of turkey chili with Mitt Romney was not a negotiation; it was more like a surrender.

I continue to believe that Congressional Republicans should make a deal with Obama. If there is no deal they will certainly be held accountable for the fallout.

But, they should not make just any deal. They should certainly not allow themselves to be humiliated in order to prop up a vainglorious president’s ego.

Some deals are worse than no deal.


jim sweeney said...

Were I Romney, my response to Obama's invitation would have been a public "Nop thanks; I'm busy." It is eye opening that Romney accepted. So much for his political acumen or the prescience of the Roves of the Republican world who backed Mitt the Naif.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I just read that Romney was heckled when he went to the WH. Proves your point...