This has always been part of Obama's narrative. His brand of politics rises above the fray."I don't really understand that fully," says Jeswald Salacuse, who teaches international negotiations at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "Simply making the statement and expecting them to come along and say, 'Yeah, you did the right thing. We're going to do the right thing.' I really think that's naive and certainly not realistic. Policy is a matter to be negotiated. It's a messy business, there's lots of give and take, but at the end of the day, that's the way it's done."Experts on negotiation say that when Obama publicly volunteers to concede something that Republicans want, a principle comes into play called "reactive devaluation." Explains Mike Wheeler of Harvard Business School: "If I give you something that you haven't asked for or worked for, you tend to underappreciate it. It's quite different if you've got to pull it out of me."Another way of looking at it is, if you feed the donkey all your carrots at the beginning of a trip, the donkey has no incentive to carry you. Although in this case, the better metaphor might be the elephant has no incentive to carry you.Even some Republicans share this view of the president as a poor negotiator."It's sort of like telegraphing your passes in basketball. It's easy to steal a pass," says Jim Walsh, a former congressman from upstate New York, now with the lobbying firm K&L Gates.
Obama has since admitted as much. "It might have been better for us not to include tax cuts in the original package, let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts, and then say, O.K., you know, we'll compromise and give you your tax cuts," he told Peter Baker. So why does he keep including the tax cuts?
Different parts of the White House give different answers when asked about this strategy. Some argue that these decisions were simply good policy, and the president is right not to treat them as bargaining chips. The whole theory of legislative politics as some sort of negotiation is wrong, they say. The Republicans were never going to negotiate, and so holding these as chips would've simply meant never doing them. Better to do them unilaterally and get the credit. Some will defend certain policies but not others. The tax cuts were done unilaterally because the administration was committed to a particular design that it thought would do more for the economy, though this doesn't get mentioned much because it makes them look less bipartisan. And some staffers just laugh ruefully when you use the word "strategy...."
The going theory -- which you hear both inside and outside the White House -- is that this is what happens when a president who wants to be bipartisan gets stuck in a partisan moment. Obama remains intent on proving his interest in working across the aisle but impatient with negotiations that will go nowhere and produce nothing. It's worth sitting down with drug companies because concessions might buy their support. It's not worth doing it with Republicans because concessions don't attract their support, as the Gang of Six, among other negotiations, proved.But the White House's critics think the proof is in the election. Democrats just got "shellacked." Obama gained absolutely nothing by seeming more reasonable than his opponents. In fact, the Republicans ran some notably unreasonable candidates and still won the election. The question, they say, isn't why Obama wants this strategy to work. It's when he'll admit that it's failed.
The president makes a series of decisions that he thinks are in the best interests of the country -- not as a bargaining chip or a bargaining tool, but because it was the right thing to do.