President Obama’s new negotiating tactic: Stop negotiating with yourself

January 16, 2013

As the details of President Obama's plan to curb gun violence in the country began to leak out over the past 24 hours, one thing became immediately clear: He was asking for it all.


President Obama signed 23 executive orders dealing with guns into law Wednesday.

That is, rather than attempting to pick off an issue here or an issue there that would allow him to declare that he had acted in the wake of the horrors of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., President Obama chose to unveil a sweeping package of executive actions and legislative proposals that is being described as the most expansive attempt to curtail violence with guns in decades.

Not only did Obama go "big" but he also pledged to use the power of his office to ensure that his proposals would make it into law. Of the package of proposals, Obama said: "In the days ahead I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality."

It's the second time in just the past 72 hours in which Obama has chosen to ask for everything he wants and leave little (initial) room for compromise. The first time came Monday when the President sought to seize the rhetorical high ground from Republicans by casting the raising of the debt ceiling as something on which he refused to negotiate under any circumstances.

That approach is a marked change from Obama's negotiating position in past legislative fights in which, Democrats often complained, he negotiated with himself -- starting with an initial offer somewhere close to where he wanted to end up and then watching as Republicans pulled him further and further to the ideological right before the deal was done.

The prime example of that tendency was in the late 2010 deal reached with Congressional Republicans that extended the entire slate of tax cuts passed under the presidency of George W. Bush for two years. Liberals hated the deal, insisting that Obama had been strategically outmaneuvered by a House GOP who started off asking for the world and bargained down from there.

Timing may explain the change in approach. President Obama made the tax cut extension deal with Republicans soon after he watched his party lose control of the House (and lose ground in the Senate) in the 2010 election and less than two years removed from what was promising to be an increasingly rocky re-election bid of his own.

Today, President Obama is just a few months removed from a 332-vote electoral victory and never again has to worry about winning political office again. He also bears the scars of not only the tax-cut extension fight but his legislative battles to pass the economic stimulus bill and health-care reform.

The new Obama is one who rather than believing he can use the force of his personality to wring compromise from Republicans now understands that the best (only?) approach that will allow him to win major legislative battles is to ask for everything he wants and only give that position up in the final moments of the debate (if at all). (To be clear, on guns Obama -- and Vice President Joe Biden -- have repeatedly said they don't expect every proposal to become law. But that they went for everything they wanted in the first place marks a change.)

That approach largely worked for the president in the fiscal cliff fight at the end of 2012 and it's clearly how he has decided to navigate the coming confrontations on guns and the debt ceiling.

His base will love it. Republicans will hate it. The question now is whether it will work to get something done.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · January 16, 2013