What Obama wins if he loses to Boehner at the “golf summit”


At the “golf summit” this weekend, President Obama has more to gain than just a little bonding over bogeys with House Speaker John Boehner. (Chris Carlson)

Given that advantage for Boehner, along with the extreme unlikelihood that a deal on the deficit might be made on the back nine (both sides are dampening expectations), one might wonder why the president would bother playing at all. With the economy still on the rocks and the country engaged in war in the Middle East—President George W. Bush famously said “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf”—some might say there’s also an optics risk. And then there’s party politics. According to The New York Times, a sitting president has never played golf with the other party’s leader who was also expected to win the game.

Yes, spending four hours outside, free of aides and reporters, is sure to help Obama and Boehner build something that looks a bit more like a relationship. It’s almost a cliché that the golf course is where two conflicting parties can find common ground—that one of the best negotiating tables in the world is a putting green. Even if deals don’t get done, there’s really no other way in today’s over-scheduled, hyper-distracted world that two leaders can spend four hours together without interruption. A little more familiarity and understanding between the two is an inevitable result.

But while many may scratch their heads about the upside for Obama, making Boehner feel good about himself won’t hurt the president. As most good negotiators know, puffing up your opponents and letting them win battles that don’t really matter—like a golf game—can go a long way toward making them more open to working with you in the future. It’s a bit of reverse psychology and won’t, of course, translate entirely from the greens to Capitol Hill. But giving a little ground here could lead to more receptive discussions in the future.

Some might argue, of course, that Obama won’t be “letting him win” if Boehner is really the better golfer. But by making the invitation in the first place, the president is already giving Boehner the opportunity to best him. The fact that the game is now six months in the making should only increase the satisfaction Boehner feels if he wins.

In negotiations, it might seem that making yourself vulnerable or giving the other guy a chance to win would only make him overconfident and more cocky in future conversations. And in some cases, that may be true. But in this one, I’d guess Obama has more to gain than just a little bonding over bogeys with Boehner. 

More from On Leadership:

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Sexual misconduct by men in power

Next-generation government

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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