The Obama Watch

A Tale of Two Dealmakers

Obama is no Reagan when it comes to negotiating.

By 8.1.11

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Presidential scholars write on all sorts of aspects of the American presidency. Among the most interesting have been several important works on so-called presidential character and temperament. And when it comes to the temperament of our current president, we've learned quite a bit during the recent debate over the debt ceiling.

The most illuminating report I've read was a Politico piece entitled, "Obama abruptly walks out of talks." The article described President Obama's bitter negotiations with nemesis Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority leader. Obama "abruptly walked out of a stormy debt-limit meeting," Politico reported, "a dramatic setback to the already shaky negotiations." Eric Cantor said of the president's behavior: "He shoved back and said 'I'll see you tomorrow' and walked out."

The Politico piece continued: "the White House talks blew up amid a new round of sniping between Obama and Cantor, who are fast becoming bitter enemies." When Cantor told the president that they were too far apart to get a deal done by the fateful August 2 deadline, Obama, according to Politico, "began to lecture him." Obama indignantly told Cantor that no other president -- including Ronald Reagan -- would condescend to sit through such negotiations.

Alas, it was Obama's Reagan reference that nags at me.

In truth, Ronald Reagan was a remarkable negotiator, both incredibly patient and principled. Negotiating was one of Reagan's greatest but most underappreciated attributes.

When we think of Reagan as a negotiator, we remember his crucial walk-out of the Reykjavik Summit in October 1986. Some Obama supporters want to invoke that example here, which is short-sighted at best. Reykjavik was just one of five separate, extended Reagan one-on-ones with Mikhail Gorbachev: Geneva (November 1985), Reykjavik (October 1986), Washington (December 1987), Moscow (May-June 1988), and New York (December 1988).

One example of Reagan's negotiating power seems especially applicable to Obama's current dealings with Congressional Republicans. In 1971, Governor Reagan squared off with the speaker of the California legislature, a tough Democratic foe named Robert "Macho Bob" Moretti. California was on the verge of a major policy success: a historic welfare-reform package. But first, Moretti and Reagan had to sit down together, side by side, and hammer out specifics. Moretti made his way to Reagan's office, walked in by himself, and announced: "Governor, I don't like you. And I know you don't like me, but we don't have to be in love to work together." Reagan replied simply, "Okay." He committed to a good-faith effort to work with Moretti.

The two endured grinding binary and plenary sessions for six weeks (almost exactly the time since Obama walked out of his talks with Cantor). Moretti himself calculated that he sparred with Reagan for "seventeen days and nights," "line by line, statistic by statistic," and obscenity by obscenity. At times, Reagan burned with frustration -- "that's it, I'm through with this" -- but never gave up.

Grudgingly, Moretti came to respect Reagan, who he saw as hard on his principles but flexible in the details -- an observation of Reagan shared by numerous aides over the decades. The governor surprised Moretti by yielding to fair and rational arguments, once even agreeing to renegotiate a point that the speaker had regretted conceding.

As Edmund Morris shows in his personality-based biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Moretti was most impressed with Reagan's honesty as a deal maker. He admired the fact that the governor never lied and honored every commitment he made.

In the end, on August 13, 1971, the California Welfare Reform Act became law. Reagan rightly called it "probably the most comprehensive" such welfare initiative in U.S. history. It was way ahead of its time, predating all of the bipartisan welfare-reform accomplishments of the 1990s.

The negotiations between Reagan and Moretti were somewhat of a microcosm of the Reagan-Gorbachev talks. Then, too, the two men spent many intense hours exchanging heated words and a few obscenities. For Reagan, there were non-negotiables then as well, of which SDI (at Reykjavik) was the most dramatic. There were items that Reagan insisted upon, such as addressing the USSR's persecution of its own citizens (especially Russian Jews), and giving no quarter in his belief in the superiority of the American system. He and Gorbachev likewise were locked horn to horn. The results were historic changes in arms control. Like Moretti, Gorbachev learned to like and respect Reagan.

I'm not privy to the records on all of President Obama's negotiations with House Republicans like Eric Cantor and John Boehner. From what I'm reading, however, we're seeing a very different kind of chief executive. Barack Obama is not only no Ronald Reagan on economic policy. He's also no Reagan when it comes to negotiating skills. Obama doesn't understand Reagan at all, and that's a loss for this nation.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.