U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Rodon Group manufacturing facility on November 30, 2012 in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Obama made a case for action on "fiscal cliff" legislation and urged congress to work together for a solution. (Jessica Kourkounis/GETTY IMAGES)

The fiscal cliff debate is at a stalemate. Is anyone actually surprised?

Sure, Republicans may have made a show of offering to include more revenues in the discussion. But anyone who thinks a deal might be neatly tied up before Christmas is forgetting several things. One: Democrats may have had several key wins in the election, but the contest was still close enough not to give anyone an overwhelming mandate. Two: The already terrible hyper-partisanship is likely worse in the aftermath of the election, with one side licking its wounds, the other feeling overconfident and both sides with less to gain (at least in the short term) from appearing to give anything up.  

And three: The president learned a lot in the bruising battles over the budget and the debt ceiling during his first term, and is likely to be less willing to give ground early. Coming off the heels of the election, Obama has “emerged as a different kind of negotiator in the past week or two,” the New York Times wrote Sunday. He appears far more disciplined and adamant than in earlier discussions.

Obama has made the first formal proposal one that does little to include compromises for Republicans, such as tax cuts.Instead, the plan Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered includes $1.6 trillion in taxes from the rich, short-term stimulus spending, $600 billion in cuts, and the ability for the president to raise the ceiling on federal borrowing without Congress’s approval. Republicans howled in protest, then offered their own counter-proposal Monday afternoon.

Was this a good move for the president? It’s of course too early to know. On the one hand, Obama has been roundly criticized for not pushing hard enough for his ideas, and giving ground too early. Some 60 percent of Americans agree that taxes need to be raised on the wealthy, so even if he doesn’t quite have a so-called “mandate,” he certainly has a majority—of voters at least—supporting him. And no matter how close we may be to Dec. 31, this is still the opening round, and the next round is likely the place for more concessions.

Still, the president has also done something that could make negotiations far more difficult. He has made it clear that raising tax rates on the wealthy is his line in the sand. Without that, anything else appears to be a loss for him. Being so public about that target could help the president, given the idea’s support among voters. And we’d usually argue that for leaders, clarity on goals is essential. But it could also hurt him. Research on negotiations (if the goal is an actual deal) shows that being so candid about your bottom line can actually backfire. As a result, former Bush aide Tony Fratto told the Times, “if [a tax increase] is going to happen, it will be last if Republicans can hold out.”

This, of course, was not a card he could hide. A much-repeated and well-supported campaign promise, Obama’s goal of ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans was never a secret. But because his opponents will likely use it to draw out the debate as long as possible, it may make his job of standing firm on the issue—and looking like the hard-line leader he’s been criticized by his party for not being—just that much harder.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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