Politics & Policy

No Negotiations

(Getty Images)
Obama isn’t good at making deals — and he doesn’t particularly care.

Of course.

The new Congress was not yet two hours old when the White House announced Tuesday that it would veto the first bill that lawmakers plan to send to the president’s desk: a measure authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline across the Canada–U.S. border.

If President Obama wanted to build the Keystone pipeline, it would have been built already. In fact, if he wanted it built, he probably would have issued an executive order demanding its construction by now.

Back in May 2014, President Obama was complaining that Congress wasn’t sending enough bills to his desk. “You remember Harry Truman with the do-nothing Congress? This is a less productive Congress than the do-nothing Congress. This Congress makes the do-nothing Congress look like the New Deal.” Harry Reid’s refusal to bring any House bills to the floor had a lot to do with that, of course.

So Republicans take over the Senate, and within hours Obama is issuing veto threats.

This is the president who spent the first two years of his presidency boasting about shovel-ready jobs of big-spending stimulus projects. One of this president’s most clichéd political moves is to hold campaign-style events outside of Washington touting the need for infrastructure spending. He went to Wilmington, Del., and declared, “If Washington were working the way it was supposed to, Congress would be creating jobs right now . . . jobs like these guys in the hard hats are doing right now rebuilding bridges and roads and airports and ports all across the country.”

But not pipelines, apparently. Obama genuinely seems to think that pipeline-construction work has a completely different economic impact from that of other infrastructure-construction work. During Obama’s year-end press conference, he shrugged that the jobs created by the pipeline are merely temporary, unlike other infrastructure jobs:

Now, the construction of the pipeline itself will create probably a couple thousand jobs. Those are temporary jobs until the construction actually happens. . . .  When you consider what we could be doing if we were rebuilding our roads and bridges around the country — something that Congress could authorize — we could probably create hundreds of thousands of jobs, or a million jobs.

The president seems to think that jobs in the fields of highway repair, bridge repair, airport-runway resurfacing, and port dredging are permanent.

Another justification for the veto threat, from Josh Earnest on Tuesday:

He did discuss this at his end-of-the-year news conference a couple of weeks ago, and he did note that the pipeline would have I think what he described as a nominal impact on gas prices in this country. But he was concerned about the impact that it could have on carbon pollution and the contribution it could make to carbon pollution, the negative impact that that has on the public health of people all across the country, and the impact that that has on our ability to build communities across the country. As we see weather disasters worsen, as we see in the form of wildfires or more severe hurricanes, that only adds to costs. So the President does harbor those concerns.

You see, apparently those “bridges and roads and airports and ports all across the country” that Obama so enthusiastically endorses don’t generate enough carbon pollution to worry him. But the pipeline does.

Keep in mind, when Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was in her runoff, and tried to save her career with a last-ditch, all-out effort to get the Senate to pass legislation to approve construction of the pipeline, there was no veto threat. But now that there’s no vulnerable Democrat involved, the White House feels free to veto a popular, long-delayed proposal.

Back in November, the New York Times cited “people familiar with the president’s thinking” declaring that this year “he might use Keystone as a bargaining chip: He would offer Republicans approval of it in exchange for approval of one of his policies.”

That’s a really nice idea that suggests that someday the pipeline will get built, but Keystone fans shouldn’t hold their breath. Evidence is mounting that Obama doesn’t know how to negotiate. One can begin with his shifting and disappearing “red lines” that indicate that today’s promise can be easily forgotten, his needless “trolling” and antagonism of opponents, and his comfort with an atmosphere of crisis and a ticking clock.

But even Obama’s allies have noticed a peculiar philosophy when it comes to making deals. From Chuck Todd’s The Stranger (page 185):

Aides who watched the president noticed that when Obama sat down at the bargaining table, he negotiated toward a common denominator. His tendency was to strip away areas of a proposal on which the two sides differed until both sides could agree on a framework. It was an idealistic, rational sensibility that began with the premise that some area of common ground always exists in some situation, however small — and it was a very un-Washington way to negotiate. Again and again, he’ll immediately identify the common ground as a means of showing the other person that they were on the same side, and that therefore that person’s prejudices and preconceptions should be abandoned. That sensibility had been professionally reinforced during his dozen years lecturing at the University of Chicago. . . . 

It’s actually surprising that the president enjoyed playing poker so much, because in legislative negotiations he rarely acted like a sophisticated player. He metaphorically let everyone at the table see his entire hand when it came to policy debates.

Strip away the sections of that passage that you deem too kind to Obama for a moment. Notice that Obama begins from the assumption that the other party’s disagreement stems from “prejudices and preconceptions” (that obviously Obama does not suffer from himself) and that the president just has to identify the “common ground” to illuminate the path to an enlightened agreement. It’s not hard to picture negotiations going around in circles as Obama tries to explain to his opponents just how wrong they are.

Obama’s approach assumes there’s common ground or common interests, but the progressive and conservative philosophies seek diametrically opposed policies. Obama wants to increase spending; most Republicans want to reduce it. Obama wants tax increases as a big part of any entitlement reform; Republicans don’t. Obama wanted an insurance mandate, Republicans don’t; Republicans wanted tort reform, Obama doesn’t. Republicans want each year’s deficit to be as small as possible or eliminated entirely; Obama saw trillion-dollar-a-year deficits as a cost of doing business in his first term.

Todd contrasts the Obama approach with Vice President Joe Biden’s:

Biden took a different, more tried-and-true approach: he offered something his negotiating partner wanted in exchange for something he wanted, with the intention of aggregating mutual political satisfaction toward a bill both sides could claim as a win. One former Biden aide described his style as allowing everyone to declare victory. The resulting bill might be a Frankenstein of gimmes and earmarks and U-turns, but like that monster, it was alive.

And that, in all its inglorious chaos, was how Washington worked for most of the twentieth century and even the early part of the twenty-first. Reagan and Clinton had believed in the process, and so did Biden, almost religiously.

Negotiate with Biden, and you’ll win on A, B, and C, in exchange for concessions on X, Y, and Z. You may like it, you may feel vaguely dissatisfied, but in all likelihood you’ll feel mixed. That’s what negotiation is, as opposed to Obama’s lecture/lesson format.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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