Why Obama Doesn’t Succeed in His Negotiations

It is painful to watch as Obama seems to strike out in his very forthright and well-meaning attempts at negotiating with the Republicans. He seems to have learned the lessons of compromise, of expressing concerns and listening to the concerns of others, so where does he go wrong? Why is he constantly being criticized for giving away too much, too quickly? Why does he seem frustrated and unable to achieve what he wants?

The unfortunate fact is that the straightforward approach of facilitative mediation and related types of negotiations are best applied to situations that involve non-financial, personal matters. As soon as money enters into it, one loses by putting too much on the table too soon; since, in the realm of pure money, it is often a zero sum game.  In the realm of simple financial negotiations (when there is no way to add value or to successfully think outside the box), parties hold back on their bottom line offer because once the other side knows what that is, they will never give more than the bottom line requires. That is information that must be protected by both sides in a zero sum game.

In the realm of interpersonal mediation: any type of mediation that involves relationships, there is often a give and take that allows for the honest sharing of concerns, interests, needs and goals.  In those types of cases, parties can best achieve what they want by putting their honest objectives on the table and trying to find a way to satisfy the objectives of both sides. Because the issues are often intangible (how people behave with one another) or complex, each party has a chance of getting everything they want and has an opportunity to think outside the box and create value. When there is no way to create value or when the opposing party has no desire to create value, then it is unwise to put one’s bottom line on the table.

In the case of Obama, the Republicans may view it as a zero sum game, but most importantly, they have objectives that are purely contrary to Obama’s and which make it impossible for there to be honest negotiations. The Republicans do not want Obama to succeed, so as long as Obama makes it clear what he thinks success is, he will lose, no matter how much he compromises. In that sense, it is a zero sum game.

Unfortunately, in the current political realm, Obama’s positive assets and values as a straightforward and sincere mediator and negotiator are liabilities.

One thought on “Why Obama Doesn’t Succeed in His Negotiations

  1. I think you’re absolutely right that the problem here is that at least one of the negotiating partners sees this as a zero sums game. Two thoughts on this:

    (1) As a trivial point, it’s zero sum not because money is involved, but because electoral politics are involved. There’s no reason why budget negotiations in Congress should be more zero sum than negotiations over other matters of policy (indeed, in theory both parties agree here that they’d like to cut the federal budget). But electoral politics in a two-party system are always zero sum, because if one party wins, the other party loses.

    (2) More importantly, what’s odd is that this fight is almost a textbook example of a non-zero sum game. If the two sides reach no deal, they both lose because the country goes into default and the economy suffers. In that sense it’s more like, say, the Cuban Missle Crisis than a normal negotiation. Both sides care about their relative standing, but both sides also (in theory) care about human welfare and know that BATNA is disastrous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>