The Magazine

Obama the Bargainer

How to lose friends and alienate Congress

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By JAY COST
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The internal sources of strength are the president’s political skills, which he deploys in particular circumstances. So the question becomes: How good is he at persuading others, given the political context? If political context is the science of presidential power, quantifiable in electoral results and congressional voting scores, persuasive skill is the art. Here, we must put down the American Political Science Review and pick up Machiavelli’s Prince. As for President Obama’s first term, no other incoming president in recent history had such a surplus of political capital and misused it so terribly. The reason? He lacks important skills that are integral in the exercise of presidential power.


All presidents are unique, each possessing or lacking skills useful to a chief executive. Obama is notable in that he has mastered some vital skills better than any recent predecessor, but he exhibits virtually no facility with others. His strengths have been enumerated extensively by a fawning press corps. His favorable coverage is due not only to the media’s ideological commitment to his policy goals, but also to his natural gifts. He awes the press, and many other groups in society, by his very presence. Moreover, he knows he has this power over them. This ability, more than any other, made him president and remains his single greatest source of power.

Yet though he affects some people intensely, he himself seems largely unaffected by others. This helps explain why he has used his speaking ability so unevenly: He is wont to misread people, and therefore situations. His Tucson speech, for instance, after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was a political stroke of genius. He intuited what the moment called for and delivered it perfectly. By contrast, his 2009 speech to the International Olympic Committee pitching Chicago was a waste of time and made him look small. Similarly, he has time and again left business leaders feeling nonplussed, inviting them to the White House mainly to serve as window dressing for another teleprompter performance. 

It is on Capitol Hill that Obama seems most out of touch with his audience. In particular, he does not understand what the key players in Congress expect, yet he is convinced he knows them better than they know themselves. What’s more, he gives little and inconsistent guidance as to what he expects from them. That goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

For Republicans, the warning signs appeared early, on the stimulus bill passed in the president’s first month in office. Obama and his team were supremely confident that they could get a $900 billion package through Congress with solid Republican support, so much so that when House minority whip Eric Cantor warned that they would receive no backing from House Republicans, they told him not to embarrass himself with such an absurd prediction.

Team Obama failed to anticipate how turned off the congressional GOP would be by the spending side of the package: Democratic appropriators were unloading a wish list that had accumulated during more than a decade of Republican governance. The White House also thought the Republicans would be attracted to the tax cuts that constituted roughly one-third of the package. But the White House did not understand how Republicans view taxes—specifically, the difference between tax credits, which the stimulus favored heavily, and rate cuts, which Republicans prefer. None of this should have come as a surprise to anyone who had done any homework on the congressional GOP. After all, Republicans killed a 1993 stimulus bill that was qualitatively similar, but less than a tenth the size of the 2009 package.

What did Team Obama surmise when its predictions fell flat? It certainly did not take time to gauge the congressional GOP more carefully, to build a more nuanced picture of Republicans’ motives and expectations. Instead, it adopted the cartoonish caricature one finds in a Paul Krugman column: Republicans are contemptible knaves, willing to let the economy go down the drain to embarrass the president.

The stimulus also featured another theme of presidential-congressional relations under Obama: mixed messages from the White House. Early in the negotiations over the bill, President Obama told House minority leader John Boehner and Cantor that he was interested in their ideas. He did not want to play partisan games; he just wanted to jump-start the economy. Yet when Cantor presented the president a list of suggestions, Obama brought the dialogue to an icy conclusion by infamously declaring, “I won, so I think I trump you on that.” During the deliberations on the bill, the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was known to respond to other GOP suggestions by shouting, “We have the votes. F— ’em!”

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