Two Negotiators: Obama vs. Reagan

Paul Kengor

8/1/2011 1:15:00 PM - Paul Kengor

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 titled, "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 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 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 unappreciated attributes, to the point where I've many times considered doing a book strictly on Reagan as a negotiator.

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).

I could detail any number of examples of Reagan negotiating, from Hollywood in the 1940s to the White House in the 1980s. However, I'd like to cite an example that I believe is most instructive and applicable to Obama right now in dealing with Congressional Republicans. To his credit, Reagan biographer Edmund Morris wrote about it. Beyond Morris, one needs to venture to the Reagan Library to dig through boxes and folders from Reagan's gubernatorial years.

It was 1971, and Governor Reagan squared off with the speaker of the California legislature, a tough Democrat foe named Robert "Macho Bob" Moretti. California was on the verge of a major policy success—a historic welfare-reform package. First, Moretti and Reagan would need 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 a long, windy path of binary and plenary sessions, as well as much less formal settings, marked by battle after battle 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 Morris shows in his biography, 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. This was a character trait Reagan had learned in Hollywood as head of the Screen Actors Guild.

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 what would happen in much of the rest of America in the 1990s, made possible by the decentralization, block granting of welfare by President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress—another bipartisan example of working together.

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.