WASHINGTON To woo your enemy, do not drop an ox in his soup. That isn’t an ancient maxim, but the idea behind it is so self-evident, I don’t need to find Sun Tzu’s version to know it’s true. When you are trying to build trust with someone who does not trust you, don’t give them new reasons not to trust you.
President Obama needs to be reminded of this basic truth. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him if he was planning to relax after he landed in Israel on Wednesday, Obama replied, “It’s good to get away from Congress.” House Speaker John Boehner told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview, “So much for the charm offensive.”
Oh come on, you’re saying. How sensitive a spring flower is John Boehner if he bruises this easily? Is this how inconsequential our politics have become that this overheard line requires comment? Yes, this is exactly what we’ve been reduced to and we can all meet for a symposium on just how small things have become later this summer. (I’ll bring the microscope!) But if the president wants to get that big deal he’s been talking about, he’s going to have to hold his tongue.
The premise of the president’s recent outreach to Republicans is that he might be able to build connections that would lead to a grand budget bargain. This relationship relies on trust. Republicans must trust that if they take a political risk to support tax code changes that would bring in revenue for deficit reduction, the president won’t undermine them further with their voters by making them look like chumps.
This relationship needs to do more than just win their agreement. It needs to be durable enough to help Republicans build support on their own side. The president’s Republican partners have to make the case for this bargain (still a near-fantasy long shot) to their voters and colleagues who don’t trust the president.
The president understands this at some level. During the Bush years, then-Sen. Obama advised the White House that it was hard to work with the administration when Republicans were constantly making Democrats out to be terrorist appeasers. He also knows this because at least two Republican senators he’s trying to work with have told him as much. Remember late last year when a fiscal cliff deal was in sight, and President Obama held a press conference with multiple jabs at Congress? “So … I’m confused,” said a spokesperson for Eric Cantor, “Does POTUS want a deal or not? Because all those jabs at Congress certainly sounded like a smack in the face to me.” That news conference created ill-will that didn’t kill the deal, but it has made working on another one much harder. It’s why lots of Republicans are anticipating he’ll do it again on a big deal now.
The president dined with Republican senators, met with Republicans on the Hill, and placed lots of behind-the-scenes phone calls. I’ve talked to some of the senators the president has talked to, and they attest to his sincerity. They believe he wants a big deal and this outreach is not some kind of political trick.
President Obama said he would create room for a big deal by reducing his attacks on Republicans, which convinced some that he really was on a new course. But two days later, the president undermined his promise. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, he characterized the Republican position as wanting to “gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid.” Republicans involved in the deal-making said, There he goes again. The goodwill was diminished.
This is hardly a reason to go diving for the iodine and gauze bandages. Politicians regularly say terrible things about each other and then make deals. President Ronald Reagan once called Speaker Tip O’Neill “a round thing that gobbles up money,” and the House speaker said Reagan was a “cheerleader for selfishness.” But the two could work together because they had a level of trust. In today’s world, this is how a Republican senator can say glowing things about New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. Schumer may regularly demagogue Republicans, but in a deal his word is solid.
The president has no trust reservoir. He will need to create one if he’s going to get a deal. So holding his tongue is how he builds that trust. It’s not the only thing he must do, and it may not be enough, but it would make getting a deal easier.
Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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