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Obama As “Negotiator In Chief”: A Help Or Hindrance For Professional Conflict Managers?

3 January 2011

As President Obama negotiates his way through the myriad of difficult and complex issues, the public is observing his approach. Whether they see negotiation as the “cursed” process of the appeaser or sellout, as they have historically, or as an effective mode of conflict management that disposes people to negotiate or mediate difficulties in their own personal and business affairs, depends in large part on his example. This is a quick and dirty “arm chair” quarterbacking of his strategy— or lack thereof.

Even though President Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in close proximity to the Harvard Negotiation Project, it is not clear that his approach to negotiation is either strategically coherent or effective. Notwithstanding the last minute accomplishments of the of the “lame duck” Congress in passing a flurry of previously ignored or delayed matters of importance, many have seen him as an appeaser who is so anxious to make a deal at all costs that he conceded too much even before the real negotiation began and not effectively marshalling the energies and support of interest groups that could bring political pressures to bear.

To many, Obama follows more in the tradition of Neville Chamberlain, too willing to compromise with Adolf Hitler and sellout Czechoslovakia for “peace in our time,” just before the breakout of World War II, rather than Lyndon Johnson, the “hardball” negotiator who did not hesitate to stick his forefinger into the chest of a recalcitrant legislator, and threaten the loss of a prized earmark, to obtain his vote for Medicare or the Civil Rights Act in the 1960’s. (Caro, Robert, Path To Power: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1990) Obama sometimes seems overly concerned with gaining respect rather than demanding it. Done directly enough to be clear and feel real but subtly enough so that the appearance of an ultimatum is skirted, sometimes brings hesitant parties to the table.

Good negotiators—and mediators— know how and when to instill a measure of fear; raising the specter of a risk or consequence for failing to negotiate can be a motivator. Recently deceased, former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, often noted how he made it a habit in his prior role as a mediator during the Bosnian-Serbian Wars, to bring a high ranking military officer with him to the negotiation sessions. He wanted to reinforce his willingness to use force so that the risk of agreement failure would be ever-present. (Holbrooke, R., To End A War, 1999)

Being smart is over-rated. Analytical thinking can be helpful, but it is seldom sufficient in managing problem solving in complex matters and certainly not negotiation. Maybe his Harvard education and intellectual bearing has done him a disservice: he thinks negotiation is just about being collaborative and engaging in reasoned dialogue, without the essential elements of strategic deceptions and a few well placed dramatic displays.

In a similar vein, many have been critical of the “back-room” dealings that have shadowed the public process. An open and transparent negotiation process is often given as an article of faith, along with the obligation of a “civil dialogue,” especially by those of an overly rationalist persuasion. But the fact that Obama was hosting private talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, with Vice President Biden as a go-between, at the same time the Senate was taking up the matter, becomes of concern only when those involved seem to at once disavow and practice those deceptions. It was not clear that Obama knew what he was doing; he appeared to leave his own base hanging and confused. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY), blurted out his frustration of the President’s tactics, asserting that he appeared to be more the “negotiator in chief” instead of a “leader and protector” of the middle class as he had promised. Negotiation, especially in delicate and complex matters, is not entirely a rational process and can seldom withstand the glare of public scrutiny.

Such surreptitious strategies and techniques, common to experienced negotiators and mediators, are often problematic to those who do not understand or like the negotiation process. In the United States, where the Myths of Truth and Rationality remain pervasive, even the mention of negotiation can be perceived by a fair number of people as a sacrilege and debasement of their ideological belief. Few Americans like to negotiate, or more accurately, want to publicly accept the necessity of negotiation, especially with those perceived to be “enemies,” as the rhetoric of many would suggest.

To the extent that President Obama appears to “lay his cards on the table,” pretending on one hand to be open and transparent, while on the other hand compelled to do a deal, he opens himself up to greater criticism and the public at large is aided in reinforcing their already considerable dislike of the sleazy work of negotiators in general and politicians in particular. President Obama needs to review and refine his approach and strategy to negotiation. He needs to develop a more coherent negotiation strategy that aligns his allies and effectively works to finesse opponents, and perhaps most important of all, be able to effectively explain why he must negotiate, why it is a credible process and how he approaches it. The public knows little or nothing about negotiation and the process is generally seen negatively; they need to be educated. If Obama is to be a “transformative” President and accomplish doing things “differently” in Washington D.C., then a first step will be to have people—both professionals and the public—better understand the negotiation process and its necessity.

Substance aside, this President as all Presidents, have an opportunity to offer a constructive model of how negotiation could be a far more effective and accepted mode of conflict management. Obama is alternatively accused of having a “progressive,” or worse, “socialist” agenda, while others challenge him as being an amoral, unhinged, opportunistic pragmatist. Without abandoning his beliefs, he has demonstrated the potential to be a particularly effective voice for how deals can be made without selling out. But it will not be easy: he will need to bring more dramatic energy to his negotiation approach and become more deftly constructively deceptive.

Related articles on politics and negotiation:

Mediation In Politics And The Politics Of Mediation,, July 2010.

Health Insurance Reform: Giving The Devil His Due the Importance of Back Room Deals, Dirty Politics and Subversive Negotiation,, March 2010.

Obama The Negotiator: The Strategic Use of Anger,, March 2009.

Cloaked Negotiation: Necessary Back-Channel, Under the Table and Surreptitious Strategies and Techniques to Make Deals Work,, Jan. 2009.

The Obama Presidency and the Future of the Conflict Management Business: The Mediative Leader and the Activist Mediator, Nov. 2008.

People I Hate(d): Negotiation and the Presidential Election,, Sept. 2008.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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