In politics, appearances often matter more than reality. Theodore Roosevelt understood this point well. Edmund Morris relates the fact particularly well in a chapter of his acclaimed book, Theodore Rex.
In 1902, the 26th President brought together John Mitchell, President of the United Mine Workers, and members of the business community for talks at the White House. The goal: an end to the Anthracite Coal Strike that had endured for over five months. The struggle had not only led to the loss of seven lives, but also had become a serious drag on the nation’s economy.
Roosevelt’s subsequent performance showed a mastery of negotiation. It rested on two pillars. First, he let both sides posture and talk themselves hoarse. Second, and most importantly, he crafted a genius compromise.
Both parties in question needed some form of arbitration. However, both had stuck their respective necks out so far publicly that they could not appear to capitulate at this point.
Roosevelt worked around the problem with the creation of an independent commission to solve the matter. In essence, the agreement allowed both sides to settle without appearing to do so.
After wrangling over nominal titles and membership within the commission, both parties agreed. The President summed up the entire issues as follows:
I shall never forget the mixture of relief and amusement I felt when I thoroughly grasped the fact that while they would heroically submit to anarchy rather than have Tweedledum, yet if I would call it Tweedledee they would accept it with rapture.
In short, Roosevelt realized that the secret to mediation was the placation of vanity.
In many cases individuals understand that compromise is necessary, but pride gets in the way. If you learn to call a settlement by another name and appeal to respective egos in the process, success is far more likely.
The lesson is a lasting one. The world has progressed significantly in the past century. Yet, the vanity of public leaders has perhaps only gotten worse in that time.
Seen through this lens, President Obama’s press conference on the Fiscal Cliff on New Year’s Eve makes little sense. The speech was full of jibes directed towards an opposition that was still in the process of contemplating a possible deal. The words seemed better suited for the celebration of a victory rather than a situation in which everything still hangs in the balance.
The President stated that he wants a grand bargain, however, “with this Congress…it is too much to hope for.” He then referenced the pledge made by many Republicans to refuse all tax hikes while in office. It is a promise that many in the GOP appear set to go back on.
Why the President would point out this relative betrayal to conservative constituencies across the country is a mystery. It makes it that much harder for Congressional leaders to secure votes amidst growing pressure to stand firm from less moderate voters.
Obama only added further cause for rancor from there:
If Republicans think that I will finish the job of deficit reduction through spending cuts alone — and you hear that sometimes coming from them, that sort of after today we are just going to try to shove only spending cuts down — shove spending cuts at us — that will hurt seniors or hurt students or hurt middle class families without asking also equivalent sacrifice from million airs or companies with a lot of lobbyists. If they think that’s going to be the formula for how we solve this thing, then they have got another thing coming.
Congressional leaders within the GOP are reacted much as you might expect they would. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) appeared confounded at the “antagonizing” stance of the White House in a later floor speech:
What did the President of the United States just do? Well, he kind of made fun – he made a couple of jokes. Laughed about how people are going to be here for New Year’s. Sent a message of confrontation to the Republicans; I believe he said, ‘if they think they’re going to do that, they’ve got another thought coming.’
The Senator’s response is by no means a unilateral one. This raises the question: What was the President thinking? Perhaps he viewed going off the “Fiscal Cliff” as preferable to the deal on the table. He may have been tired after days of negotiation. The extended talks would exasperate anyone. The brinksmanship may have created an authentic antagonistic stance.
However, most likely, the President sees the bully pulpit (and its access to public opinion) as the most effective means of moving the deal forward. In the words of Edmund Morris:
A few thousand myopic scrutineers of the body text mattered little, if millions of larger vision registered the banner words above.
Yet, at least thus far, such sentiments appear an overestimation of the power of the podium. On the subject, Ezra Klein wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker claiming that Presidential speeches often do more harm than good.
However, as Roosevelt knew, the pride of public leaders should never be underestimated or overlooked. Even if Obama gets what he wants out of these negotiations, his victory may be a Pyrrhic one.
Debt ceiling talks are set to resume in a few months time. On that occasion, Republicans appear set to have the greater leverage. Don’t be surprised if Republicans remember the President’s parting jibes when talks begin.
In the words of Roosevelt, “envy and arrogance, are the two opposite sides of the same black crystal.” Both vices are on full display in Washington at the moment. Hopefully, they do not get in the way of the country’s economic recovery.
Tony Lucadamo serves as Sr. Editor for the Virginia Policy Review. He is a Master's candidate studying at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.