Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

President Barack Obama, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speaks to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the W
President Barack Obama, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speaks to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, as he hosted a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress to discuss the deficit and economy in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Sadly, or inevitably, avoiding the fiscal cliff will depend on negotiating strategy as much as common sense. That's the way democracy works, as the movie Lincoln points out. Obama's political skills are being tested and a lot of what may happen to you and me depends on how he does.

The initial signs are good.  Since election night Obama has dominated the tactical back-and-forth, and dominated the strategic debate.  By making the conversation solely about tax cuts for the rich he's made the Republicans defend their most unpopular position. They're in a box and have already begun to lose support from within their own ranks. And Democrats, on the Hill and across the country, are jazzed by Obama's toughness and footspeed. He's likely to win this particular battle.

Boehner, Gingrich, Limbaugh, Cantor, Ryan, McConnell or whoever is in charge of the Republican side are sputtering and fuming because Obama won't offer specific spending cuts, and seems to have backed off from the cuts he accepted two years ago. Obama wants the Republicans to specify what spending cuts they want. Health care?  Social Security?  Defense? Disaster relief? Education? 

For years the Republicans have made a living being for cuts to "spending" without, Paul Ryan aside, telling us what they wanted to cut. Now Obama is sticking it to them, demanding specifics. Those are one unhappy lot of conservative Republicans.

It's surprising that so many are surprised by the new Obama. The most telling criticism of his first term was his failure to negotiate better deals with the admittedly intractable House Republicans.  Obama thought he could deal with them by including their stuff in his first proposals. Wrong.  That amounted to negotiating with yourself. The Republicans took what he offered and said no to the rest. Those days are over and Obama has set in motion a dynamic that will avoid past mistakes, at least the ones he made in negotiations. Everyone admits Obama is smart. Did they really think he hadn't learned his lesson?

But the 800 pound, the-country-needs-a-deal gorilla in the room can smack Obama just as hard.  It matters that the country sees who really wants to reduce spending on needed and popular government initiatives. The Republican counteroffer is as unserious as Obama's original, which is part of the positioning for the eventual fistfight over what is enacted.  But if a deal is going to get done, Obama will at some point, holding his nose, have to agree to those very cuts. And then deliver the votes on his side. It's not easy moving energized Dems back into the position of responsible compromisers. 

If he can't, then the failure that sends us hurtling over the fiscal cliff will be wholly owned by Obama. And that's no way to start your second term.

American democracy has developed ways of negotiating budgets between executives and legislatures that is almost alchemy. There's so much at stake, the details and side issues are so important that we create hidden parallel political universes where both sides probe for the others' bottom line, while keeping their own true believers happy. It can work, but only if both sides really want an agreement, and will let the other guy have enough to get by. Boehner and Obama seem to have finally come to a realization that they both need an agreement, and that there's enough common ground to find the right formula. 

But both have to produce the votes, the messy part of democracy, and right now that's not a done deal.