"Like it or not, you are a negotiator."
-Getting to Yes
No doubt young Harvard Law School student Barack Obama was familiar with the national bestseller by the Harvard Negotiation Project called Getting to Yes. The 1981 book is the most popular book on negotiation of all time with over 2 million copies sold. Maybe authors Roger Fisher and William Ury even suggested the "Yes We Can" slogan for Obama's campaign.
Or maybe Barack Obama didn't need that negotiation manual. His oratory skills alone took him from the abyss of "Who's that guy?" to the mountaintop of "You are looking at the face of the first black president of the United States of America."
"Yes we can!" Well that's so 2008.
Congressional Republicans in 2009 reply, "No, you don't." The world chimes in with "Maybe we won't." So how smoothly will Obama's transition go from messianic change agent to just another Washington insider? His status from candidate to president-elect went as smoothly as Torville and Dean's Bolero in the 1984 Olympics, save for that piece of rock on the ice, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.
I think a lot about Bette Davis' character Margo Channing in All About Eve and that famous warning she gave: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night!" I worry how the president will fare in all those churning waters ahead as I teach my "Obama Think Tank" graduate course at Syracuse University on the First 100 days of his administration. He's a smart man, we all agree, but he's got a limited time to turn things around against powerful counterforces in Washington that are circling in bloody waters for the first sign of weakness to strike.
Right now my students, the nation, the world, and possibly even Mars (if there is extraterrestrial life there) are soundly on Obama's side. He's got the whole world in his hands, especially since he's just at the first policy proposal stage of his presidency. We all went gaga over his executive order to close Guantanamo in a year's time, outlaw the infamous Cheney dark side of waterboarding and other forms of torture in prisoner interrogations and remove the CIA from running secret prisons. Dana Priest of the Washington Post declared: "With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the 'war on terror.'"
One of his first memos was to reform Freedom of Information Act requests. The FOIA memo was especially heartwarming to this former executive director of Common Cause in New Hampshire. For years I worked with my nearly 2,000 citizen lobbyists in the Granite State to pressure both state and federal government to add a little sunshine to their goings on, which we always cheerfully reminded them we were paying for. At last we've got a chief executive who has the understanding of how important a reputation for a good government is when you wish to make progressive and lasting changes.
Wow, he moves fast, we all think, sort of like a superhero. Well, we've long expected some of these moves since they were cornerstones of his new smart power approach in foreign policy.
The world is certainly hopeful that the Obama administration will bring back American
know-how and leadership to many far-flung parts, but there is some looming doubt. Two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on, the Middle East still rattles its cages in the Gaza strip and elsewhere, while America maintains its devotion to Israel. European leaders show hesitancy toward taking up the multilateral slack after a mostly unilateral eight years. And with a global economy in the toilet, any new ideas will have to take a back seat to just surviving the downturn.
What may really surprise us is when the iconic man falls back down to earth and reveals himself to be a president, a man, and a negotiator who has to work his way out of the cacophony of No's he'll experience once the sheen wears off. I doubt Obama bottled water, chocolate, soap bars, or "Yes We Can!" posters will be much help in that negotiation room.
Dr. Nancy Snow, Syracuse University associate professor of public diplomacy, is senior fellow in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. Her latest book is Persuader-in-Chief: Global Opinion and Public Diplomacy in the Age of Obama.