On the right, the new image of Obama the Negotiator is oddly flattering, at least to the ears of a liberal accustomed to fretting about the president's accommodating style.. The personalized corollary of the right's current view of Obama as a legislative juggernaut is Obama as an imperious, arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway stonewaller. Here's Peggy Noonan:
In truth, Obama in the course of grand bargain negotiations reduced his never-enough ten-year revenue targets from $1.6 to 1.4 to 1.2 trillion, raised the threshold for income tax rate hikes from his long-sought $250k/household to $400k (ultimately $450k), put chained-CPI on the table as a means of slowing Social Security spending, and proposed some $600 billion in Medicare spending cuts over ten years -- to which Boehner responded by blowing up the negotiations with his ridiculous Plan B.He didn't deepen any relationships or begin any potential alliances with Republicans, who still, actually, hold the House. The old animosity was aggravated. Some Republicans were mildly hopeful a second term might moderate those presidential attitudes that didn't quite work the first time, such as holding himself aloof from the position and predicaments of those who oppose him, while betraying an air of disdain for their arguments. He is not quick to assume good faith. Some thought his election victory might liberate him, make his approach more expansive. That didn't happen.
The president didn't allow his victory to go unsullied. Right up to the end he taunted the Republicans in Congress: They have a problem saying yes to him, normal folks try to sit down and work it out, not everyone gets everything they want. But he got what he wanted, as surely he knew he would, and Republicans got almost nothing they wanted, which was also in the cards. At Mr. Obama's campfire, he gets to sing "Kumbaya" solo while others nod to the beat.
Back on Dec. 18, Greg Sargent relayed a more reality-based version of the negotiating dynamic:
[Obama's] allies are disappointed to see an old dynamic reasserting itself: The president makes concessions, thinking he’s close to a deal, and then the Republicans pocket those concessions, offering nothing but renewed threats to blow up the talks in return.
“This fight is not going to be won by the president taking a step towards Boehner, Boehner taking a step toward the president, the president taking a step toward Boehner, Boehner taking a step toward the president and so forth until they meet in the middle,” says Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “That hasn’t worked before. Boehner doesn’t take the steps...
Noonan's narrative is unsurprisingly congruent with Boehner's, as transcribed yesterday by WSJ editorial page ideologue Stephen Moore:
Never mind that the Budget Control Act that Obama acceded to in August 2011 cut spending by $1.5 trillion with no new revenue, or that Obama reduced his revenue ask twice before Boehner walked away. Obama had the effrontery to bore Boehner with basic budget reality:Mr. Boehner is frustrated that Republicans were portrayed by the press as dogmatic and unyielding in these talks. "I'm the guy who put revenues on the table the day after the election," he says. "And I'm the guy who put the [income] threshold at a million dollars. Then we agreed to let the rates go up, on dividends, capital gains as a way of trying to move them into a deal. . . . But we could never get him to step up," Mr. Boehner says with a shrug. Negotiations with the White House ended in stalemate when "it became painfully obvious that the president won't cut spending."
The president's insistence that Washington doesn't have a spending problem, Mr. Boehner says, is predicated on the belief that massive federal deficits stem from what Mr. Obama called "a health-care problem." Mr. Boehner says that after he recovered from his astonishment—"They blame all of the fiscal woes on our health-care system"—he replied: "Clearly we have a health-care problem, which is about to get worse with ObamaCare. But, Mr. President, we have a very serious spending problem." He repeated this message so often, he says, that toward the end of the negotiations, the president became irritated and said: "I'm getting tired of hearing you say that."
Relayed here is a clash of baseline assumptions. Obama's core assumption is obnoxious to Boehner because it's fact-based. Outside of healthcare spending, domestic discretionary spending has been cut to the bone. Social Security benefits are low by international standards and can be fully funded going forward by relatively minor tax tweaks or reductions in the contribution-to-benefits ratio at the upper end of the income scale. As Peter Orzag drove home at the dawn of the Obama administration, healthcare reform is entitlement reform. Moreover, Republicans have fought and will fight tooth and nail to choke off effective cost control measures -- those that increase the government's pricing power and move providers off a fee-for-service model. But Boehner, wed to a mythical version of the U.S.'s budgetary challenges, is not in a position to accept any of this.
It is of course not surprising that Noonan would channel a Boehnerian version of events. It is surprising, though, that National Journal's Ron Fournier, relying in large part on Bob Woodward, would follow suit:
By Woodward's account, the supremely self-confident Obama thought he had House Speaker John Boehner pegged as the type of Republican he knew in the Illinois legislature. "John Boehner is like a Republican state senator," the president told staff, according to Woodward. "He's a golf-playing, cigarette-smoking country-club Republican who's there to make a deal. He's very familiar to me."Accepting this narrative induces Fournier to imply that Obama has undergone a radical personality change since his career in the Illinois state senate ended in 2005:
But several sources involved in the most recent budget negotiations between Obama and Boehner tell me that the president failed to connect with Boehner. The president dominated conversations and had a habit of describing the speaker's political options at length, which Boehner found both boring and insulting.
Obama rarely invested time in getting to know Boehner. Woodward reported this telling anecdote: After the 2010 elections made Boehner the incoming speaker, Obama couldn't make a congratulatory call until the White House scrambled to find his telephone number, eventually turning to a fishing pal of somebody who worked for Boehner.
Obama might do well to remember that his fast rise from the state senate in Illinois was due in large part to an uncanny ability to make friends and find mentors. In Springfield, Ill., he played in regular poker game with lawmakers and lobbyists, and impressed elders with an ability to see things through others' eyes, a natural empathy that helped him reach across party lines and forge hard compromises on the death penalty, racial profiling and ethics legislation.That "ability to see through others' eyes" has been massively documented by Obama's biographers and by reporters speaking to his past associates. David Remnick, for example, recounts Obama's participation from 1997-2000 in the Saguaro Seminars on civic engagement at Harvard's Kennedy School. While he was among the least well known of the participants, Remnick writes that he "immediately attracted attention." Robert Putnam, the seminars' leader, told Remnick:
The striking feature was his style in the discussion of hot topics with a lot of big egos. His style was to step back and listen. There were some important people who looked pretty bored; he was not, he was following. He carefully listened. Bill Clinton is also a power listener, but Obama, who has this capacity, is less forward than Clinton in letting you know what he thinks. But then he would say, "I hear Jose Smith saying X, and Nancy saying Y, but I think Joe and Nancy actually agree on Z." and it wouldn't be pabulum. It is not a trivial thing to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch. It's a personal skill or a personality trait. I don't think I have ever seen that same ability in anyone else (Remnick, The Bridge, 306).
A similar tale has been told by many of Obama's colleague-classmates on the Harvard Law Review, including the conservative members:
Brad Berenson ’91, a partner at Sidley Austin in Washington, D.C., recalls Obama being elected as president of the Law Review because conservative students threw their support Obama’s way once it was clear a conservative candidate would not be elected. The conservatives saw Obama as more mature than other liberal candidates—a “safer, more trustworthy choice, a more natural leader. The conservatives also felt he was politically open-minded in a way others were not,” Berenson says. And, in Berenson’s opinion, they were right. “I thought he ran Law Review very well,” he says. “He led the group in putting out a quality volume that year, and he was relatively even-handed, politically speaking. He did not discriminate against political conservatives as some of the more libhttp://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/08/27/120827fa_fact_mayereral editors would have liked him to, so I and others among the conservatives appreciated that. He also formed personal relationships with a number of conservatives, which was something the far-left editors were more loath to do.”In a similar vein, David Maraniss relates memories of Obama approach to public training sessions in his community organizing days:
As a teacher, he was the sympathetic participant observer. David Kindler, who joined the Chicago organizing effort about a year after Obama, observed his teaching methods at the training workshops the Gamaliel Foundation sponsored at the Divine Word Seminary at Techny, near Northfield, about nineteen miles north of the city. In that setting the one-on-ones would be conducted in front of an entire room of forty or so people. The method was for the trainer to share something of his own vulnerability in order to draw similar revelations from the subject. Obama would “get somebody up in front of the room. He’d listen to them. He’d encourage them. He’d share something about himself [usually about the father he never knew], not because he was a manipulator,” Kindler said. “He was great at it because he actually cared about people his mother, the academic anthropologist who could relate to her subjects on a warmly human level. As a teacher, he was the sympathetic participant observer. David Kindler, who joined the Chicago organizing effort about a year after Obama, observed his teaching methods at the training workshops the Gamaliel Foundation sponsored at the Divine Word Seminary at Techny, near Northfield, about nineteen miles north of the city. In that setting the one-on-ones would be conducted in front of an entire room of forty or so people. The method was for the trainer to share something of his own vulnerability in order to draw similar revelations from the subject. Obama would “get somebody up in front of the room. He’d listen to them. He’d encourage them. He’d share something about himself [usually about the father he never knew], not because he was a manipulator,” Kindler said. “He was great at it because he actually cared about people (Barack Obama: The Story, pp. 532-533, Kindle ed.).None of this is to deny that there is bad blood between Obama and Boehner, or that Obama may have aggravated Boehner, or that another Democrat might have connected better, or that, as Jane Mayer also documented, Obama may scant some of the social niceties that grease the wheels in Washington. But the reasons for the failure of each grand bargain attempt to date are structural, rooted in GOP intransigence. Boehner's whines and boasts should not impress anyone not in the tank for him.