Undercurrents: Obama’s Negotiating Skills Will Be Put an Early Test

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 12, 2008 - 10:46:00 AM

Does Baraka Obama—if and when he is president of the United States—have the skills to go head-to-head with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad and come to some agreement of mutual benefit to both countries as well as to the Middle East and to the rest of the world? 

Though the ramifications and dangers are in no way the same, we are going to see a test of the temper of Mr. Obama’s skills as he and his campaign attempt to win over that hard core fringe of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s supporters who say that after the bruising primary battle between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton, they will never vote for the Illinois senator, under any circumstances. To win the ability to negotiate with government leaders in Tehran, Mr. Obama must first go back to Dayton and Akron and Pittsburg and Scranton and other key communities in America’s heartland. 

It’s going to be a tough sell, in part because—there being few actual, definable transgressions Mr. Obama and his campaign committed against the Clinton campaign other than, of course, winning the nomination from her—there is a minimum of actual grievances to redress. Instead, in his move to bring the whole of the Clinton faithful under his wing, Mr. Obama is battling shadows, the hardest category of opponent to fight. 

In Danny Devito’s great movie on the career of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters leader—played by Jack Nicholson—explains why political leaders should avoid “slights” against their members and constituents. A real grievance can be addressed and solved, Nicholson says, but a perceived slight cannot. Because it has no basis in fact, it lingers, festers, and never goes away. 

Had Mr. Obama or anyone on his senior campaign staff made some denigrating remark about Ms. Clinton in particular or women candidates or the women’s movement in general, such a transgression could be apologized for, explained, and atoned for, and some measure of closure brought. But in going through the expressions of anger and disappointment among Clinton supporters following her concession at the end of the primary season, wherein many of the expressions of “No-bama” were voiced, it is difficult to find some actual Obama statement or action that led to such sentiments. The worst I have found—aimed at Mr. Obama himself—is that he has the habit of sometimes addressing women who he has just met as “sweetie,” something which some observers—understandably—regard as condescending, akin to referring to a 40-year-old African-American man as a “boy.” My guess is that this has less to do with Mr. Obama considering women as a less serious form of the human species—something hard to imagine of a man who shares his life with a woman as intelligent and assertive as Michele Obama—but more an unthinking carryover from past habits. We all carry such baggage with us in areas of our purses and pants pockets that we don’t often explore. The question is not so much the having of it, but what we do about it once someone points it out to us. For Mr. Obama’s part, we will just have to see if we hear the term “sweetie” out of his mouth again, for any reason, and judge therefrom. 

Beyond any actual offense of denigration coming from Mr. Obama or his senior staff, there are two areas that seem to have ticked off the Clinton dead-doggers (“dead dog” refers to a popular saying of someone staying at a bar “until the last dog is hung;” my father used to use that phrase, and damned if I could ever figure out what the hanging of a dog had to do with it, but my understanding always was of someone who hung around—doggedly?—at a nightspot while the crew was cleaning up and ready to go home and the bartender was cashing out the till, long after reason dictated that the party was over and all the partyers should have been on their way). 

Back to the things that ticked off the Clinton die-hards. 

The first grievance they hold seems to be not against Mr. Obama or his campaign, but against Obama supporters. The second is the argument that in winning the Democratic nomination, Mr. Obama spoiled a once-in-a-generation opportunity to elect the first woman as president of the United States. We will address these grievances in turn. 

Anyone who browsed the reader comment sections of blogs or online newspapers during the primary season knows how lively—to put the most benign description of it—was the debate between supporters of Mr. Obama and supporters of Ms. Clinton at the height of the battle. At times, particularly as the campaigns went into their end-games, the exchanges got pretty nasty. Some of the complaints you are now hearing from the Clinton die-hard camp go back to things said or written by Obama supporters during those days. 

The operative word, however, is that these were things said or written by Obama supporters, not by Mr. Obama or his official campaign, itself. 

There are times when a campaign is responsible for the conduct of its supporters, but that comes when the campaign or its candidate knowingly and purposefully—but often surreptitiously, through code words rather than overt calls—taps into dark prejudices for the purposes of winning an election. One thinks immediately of the Republican welfare-queen/black-criminal-coddling presidential campaigns from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George Bush Sr. that targeted White anti-black fears, unleashing the political backlash that tore down many of the gains against anti-black discrimination made during the Civil Rights/Black Power era. Whether you thought tearing down those gains was a good thing or not, the aid and comfort given to such political backlash by Mr. Nixon, Mr. Reagan, and Mr. Bush Sr. certainly deserved much of the credit, or blame. 

To the best of my knowledge, no such anti-woman rhetoric came out of the Obama campaign, itself, either overtly or in wink-and-nod form. If Mr. Obama’s supporters took that line they did that on their own, without his encouragement or carte blanche. It would seem a bit unfair, therefore, for some supporters of Ms. Clinton to punish Mr. Obama for things said by his supporters over which the Illinois Senator had no control and which seem contrary to his core values. 

On the second grievance of the die-hard Clintonistas, it is an undoubted fact that had Mr. Obama not entered the race, Ms. Clinton would have been the odds-on favorite not only to win the Democratic nomination, but probably the general election as well, breaking a major “glass ceiling” gender barrier to become the first woman president of the United States. It would have been an enormous historic achievement. 

The “grievance”—if you can pretty it up by using such a term—is not so much that Mr. Obama decided to run for president, but that he ran such a good campaign that he beat Ms. Clinton. None of the Clintonistas appear be mad at former North Carolina Senator John Edwards for running in the primaries; Mr. Edwards, of course, lost. The conclusion by the hard-core Clintonistas is that it was a woman’s turn this year, and in deference, Mr. Obama should have stepped aside, or at least had the good grace to follow Mr. Edwards’ lead and lose.  

It is an odd argument to make against Barack Obama. 

If one accepts the premise of political “turns,” it is difficult to make a case that the “turn” of women in the American presidency supercedes the “turn” of African-Americans. Judging whose oppression is worse than whose is a silly pastime—a bit like picking at sores on each other’s legs to see which one runs the nastiest—and I won’t go down that road. But certainly, one can say that the subjugation of women and the subjugation of African-Americans in the history and present of this country are comparable. 

But if we are talking about the taking of “turns” between African-Americans and women—that is, if we agree that the last of the old oppressions ought to be lifted against both, and it is only a matter of which group gets their part lifted next—then logic would dictate that the African-American “turn” ought to come next, since civil rights gains among African-Americans turn almost immediately into gains for women. 

The struggle to abolish slavery in the 19th century—ending with the defeat of the Confederacy and the passage of the 13th Amendment—led almost directly into the struggle to win American women the right to vote. Many of the early leaders of the women’s suffrage movement—Susan B. Anthony being the most prominent example—in fact got their start, their inspiration, and their early training in abolitionism. The same can be said about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which provided a leadership training ground and helped set the stage for the Feminist Movement that immediately followed. 

One struggles to find examples in the opposite direction—women’s rights movements or significant gains that have led directly into movements or significant gains for African-American freedom or rights. 

In this regard, it is easy to see how the breakup of the color barrier to the American presidency—the election of Barack Obama—could lead directly to a comparable breakup of the gender barrier, and a woman president—either Republican or Democrat—to follow within a reasonable time. It is more difficult-though, in fairness, not impossible—to see the opposite, that the election of Hillary Clinton would have opened the doors to a followup African-American presidency. That is not an argument that Barack Obama should have been preferred over Hillary Clinton in order to speed up the day that both an African-American and a woman could serve as American President. It’s simply my own analysis of how America has operated, up until now. 

But these are all logical arguments, and logic will have little sway in what amounts to an illogical situation. That’s the way of the world, whether it’s in politics, a divorce proceeding, or negotiations between nations. It takes a top-flight negotiator to make their way through troubled waters, call out “peace, be still,” and come out with an agreement. In the case of the wooing of the Hillary Clinton hard-core, we will soon see if Mr. Obama is made up of such stuff, and if his negotiating skills are world class.