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Tom Keane

Obama 2.0 — the art of the deal

In a negotiation, you’ll rarely get a better deal than the one you first ask for. If you’re selling your company and set a price of $1 million, you likely won’t get higher. And if you’re a possible buyer and offer $500,000, you probably won’t be paying less. There’s room in between — indeed, both buyer and seller probably expect that — but that comes later, not at the beginning. And one other thing as well: when you ask for that price of $1 million, never simultaneously say, “But that’s negotiable.” Doing so only shows weakness. It ensures you’ll never get full price — or anything close to it.

A good negotiator, in short, has to be tough. Most people would rather be well-liked — toughness makes them looks extreme and inflexible. But if you believe in what you’re selling, toughness is also the best shot you’ll have of getting a deal done and getting what you want.

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In his first four years as president, Barack Obama was not such a negotiator. His second term looks to be quite different.

Obama’s inaugural address four years ago was all about compromise and finding common ground, an almost willful denial of the very real differences between the parties. Albeit artfully worded, it was, in other words, little more than, “But that’s negotiable.” The wolves pounced.

Last Monday’s inaugural address may have contained some nice words about unity and equality, but those were sheep’s clothing for a second-term president who seems to have grown fangs. A few hours after the speech — as gowns, tuxes and limos flooded D.C.’s streets — Republicans weren’t feeling the love. Many stayed away, others muttered under their breath, and most just generally felt aggrieved.

Perhaps they had some right to be offended. Obama’s shot at Mitt Romney and “takers” did appear especially out of place for a speech ostensibly about bringing America together. But I think for the most part their real problem is that Obama 2.0 no longer seems a patsy.

One could see this shift shortly after the election, as the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff loomed. In the summer of 2011, as the entire world was panicking over raising the US debt ceiling, Obama was actively seeking some sort of “grand bargain,” desperately eager to make tradeoffs to get an agreement. All that desperation did was get him a lousy deal.

This time around, he stood toe-to-toe with Republicans even as the new year approached, daring them to let taxes rise on everyone. The result seemed to surprise even the White House: minimal spending cuts coupled with a boost in tax rates for the rich. And now, as a new deadline looms for increasing the debt ceiling, Obama has yet again presented a hard, unyielding position, demanding the GOP unilaterally cave on the issue. Again, surprisingly, he may already have extracted at least a partial victory, securing at least a three-month reprieve.

In his inaugural, Obama kept up with this newfound willingness to push for what he wants, vowing to protect the usual litany of Democratic social welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. However, it’s three other topics — same-sex marriage, immigration, and gun control — that have put the GOP on the defensive. There’s good reason for that: They threaten to marginalize the party with the young (who support gay rights), Hispanics (the fastest growing ethnic group), and parents of young children (what a turnabout to see the GOP on the wrong side of the public safety).

Obama may not win all of these battles — or even any of them. But the more pugnacious president who kicks off his second term is no longer the pushover so desperate for bipartisanship and goodwill that his opposition can easily run him over.

This new steeliness will doubtless cause some hand-wringing by those who think Obama is now contributing to political divisiveness rather than resolving it. Perhaps, but a negotiation should be judged on its outcome, not on the fireworks that accompany it. At a minimum, Obama’s new mettle will gain him more respect from his opponents. It may even make him a more effective and productive president.

Tom Keane’s column appears weekly in the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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