Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate?
Like many of you, I watched President Barack Obama’s press conference Wednesday to see how he would approach Republicans, and an electorate that just sent him a pretty harsh “Dear John” letter. Like many of you, I was surprised at his approach. Obama was the one who went out there and said, “Make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot”; if he believes what he said, then voters just delivered a convincing message that they don’t like his policies. No one reasonable expected the president to grovel, but it seemed reasonable to think that he’d seek whatever narrow ground he and Republicans can share.
Progressives have long said that Obama made a mistake in 2010 by admitting he took a “shellacking” in those midterms, and by retrenching rather than pushing harder and louder with a bold progressive message. Those people now seem to have the ear of the president. After naming some unobjectionable items he hoped to get through in the current session, such as fighting Ebola and curbing ISIS, he offered incoming Republicans the chance to work with him on a higher minimum wage and other longstanding Obama agenda items.
Most notably, of course, he said he would take executive action on immigration by year's end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.
I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.") McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.
I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans. It’s not as if he has a long, distinguished record of passing legislation in a mixed environment. His later years in the Illinois State Senate enjoyed a solid Democratic majority, and he jumped into the U.S. Senate at a propitious time. Soon after he arrived came the wave of 2006, when Democrats controlled both houses of congress by comfortable margins, and Senator Obama was far too junior to be negotiating with the White House. Then came the financial crisis, and another wave, and Obama spent the first two years of his presidency in a happy situation where he could get things done without needing the support of the opposition. He didn’t even negotiate with his own party; the Senate negotiated his health care bill, and Nancy Pelosi whipped it through the House.
Post 2010, of course, he also hasn’t had much practice negotiating. I’m not interested in another tedious argument about who did what to whom; whatever the cause and whoever’s fault it may be, the fact remains that the president has spent the last four years in a stalemate: Neither party can leave, and neither party can win.
It’s a little late in the president’s career to learn the fine art of making deals with people who fundamentally disagree with you, but might be willing to work on whatever small goals you might share. I suspect it feels more comfortable to go along with the strategy that has worked decently well over the last four years: hold your ground, complain about Republican intransigence, and hope that Republican legislators give you another opportunity to play long-suffering adult in the room.
I’m not sure that it’s wise to go back to the well. Mitch McConnell has already announced that he is not going to allow shutdowns, impeachment, or other theatrics that will hurt his party in the eyes of swing voters, even if doing so would please the base. Maybe he can’t make good on that promise. But what happens if he does? What happens if Obama signs his executive order, and voters decide that he’s the one who’s acting like a toddler?
That might be a bit tough on Democrats, two years hence. Oh, I don’t pretend to know how voters would react to an executive order that abruptly legalized the status of a million or so undocumented immigrants; any guess I made would mostly consist of projecting my own discomfort with the tactic onto an electorate that doesn’t look a whole lot like me. But I submit that Democrats don’t know either. They seem convinced that they can sell the legality, and that by 2016, grateful Latinos turn out to the polls, while the rest of the country will have forgotten it ever happened (except maybe some Tea Party extremists who would never vote for a Democrat anyway, and who cares about them?).
That’s a plausible enough projection. On the other hand, Democrats also fervently believed that by 2012, at the very latest, they’d be running hard on Obamacare, before an adoring populace. They thought the folks who opposed it would get used to it, eventually, come to love it. That analysis was wildly wrong.
Which brings me to the other question raised by his press conference: Does Obama even care? Obamacare cost his party dearly, but he got a historic legislative achievement. Perhaps he’s willing to cost them again, in order to do immigration reform. The people in office will mostly keep their seats anyway, because their caucus now consists mostly of the liberal stronghold seats that Democrats can’t really lose. The next round of hopefuls might get crushed, and maybe Hillary Clinton won’t get to be president. But there’s a decent argument that Obamacare and unilateral immigration reform will fortify the Democratic caucus of 2024.
This gamble seems foolhardy; a Republican president with a Republican Congress could do a lot of damage to Obamacare in four years -- not full repeal, but change so sweeping that Obama would barely recognize his own program. But as I remarked yesterday, I am by nature a cautious person. Anyone who ran for president as a first-term junior senator definitionally has a greater appetite for risk than I do.
(Corrects date in first paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at firstname.lastname@example.org