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Shutdown Showdown: Assessing Obama's Negotiating Tactics

NPR icon by Scott Horsley
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Saul Loeb

The government shutdown grinds on with no immediate relief in sight.

President Obama says he's willing to talk with Republican lawmakers about adjustments to the health care law and other issues, but only after they re-open the government and lift the threat of a federal default.

"I'm happy to negotiate with you on anything. I don't think any one party has a monopoly on wisdom. But you don't negotiate by putting a gun to the other person's head," Obama says.

Experts in negotiation say the president's stance may be justified, but it's also risky.

President Obama has been negotiating with congressional Republicans, off and on, for the last three years, ever since the GOP took control of the House.

Robert Mnookin, who chairs the Harvard Program on Negotiation, says Obama's approach to this latest round is very different than it was during the last big debt ceiling fight in 2011.

"I think the president has appropriately seen that he had to toughen up," Mnookin says. "He took a beating in these earlier negotiations. He tried to make deals. It didn't work. He was criticized by his own party. And I think as a consequence he figured, I've really got to be much tougher."

Mnookin, whose latest book is titled Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, says it makes sense to fight in this instance rather than rewarding Republicans for using the full faith and credit of the government as a bargaining chip. Still, Mnookin adds the president's strategy is not without risk.

"Perhaps if he simply hangs tough, a week and a half from now, the Republicans will cave and he won't have to do anything. But if it doesn't happen, the consequences for all of us, for the American economy, are very, very serious," Mnookin says.

Another negotiating expert, William Ury, says what's needed is a face-saving bridge that both sides could use to back down from the standoff. Ury, who's helped to train hostage negotiators among others, says it's possible to talk with anyone, even if you're not willing to meet all of their demands.

"Negotiation doesn't mean giving up on core principles," Ury says. "You don't deal with a problem with your neighbor by cutting the phone line."

In this case neither side really wants a government default, which could be disastrous for the economy. But neither is certain how far the other is willing to go. Mnookin says at the bargaining table, it can be an advantage to seem just a little bit crazier than your opponent.

"If two cars are entering an intersection, headed towards one another, playing a game of chicken, and one of the drivers can take the steering wheel off and toss it out the window, that person wins the game."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner may not be willing to go that far. Boehner reportedly has told fellow Republicans he's willing to raise the debt limit with Democratic votes if necessary, to avoid a government default.

Several negotiating experts blamed the current political climate in the U.S. for contributing to the kind of brinksmanship we've seen this fall.

Bruce Patton is co-author of the classic negotiating handbook, Getting to Yes.

"People assume that it's zero-sum. And that if I hurt you, that's good for me. And in the real world, that's just not true. You can always both lose," Patton says.

This week's government shutdown is Exhibit A. And a default would be much worse. But those are only the most glaring examples of the stalemate that's kept Washington at a virtual standstill for the last three years. Almost as frustrating are the missed opportunities.

"There are lots of issues where I think you could improve the situation in the country from the point of view of most people," Patton says. "But only if you're sort of resigned to having to work with the other side. And not in a situation where maintaining your seat means pandering to extremists who want all or nothing."

Even with our divided government, Patton thinks, lawmakers could make real progress in areas like tax overhaul or immigration if they were more selective in choosing their battles and didn't treat cooperation as a dirty word.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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