Fiscal Cliff 2013: Why Obama and Boehner Are Actually Very Close to Reaching a Deal

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will carry out the rest of the budget negotiations one-on-one, at the speaker’s request, according to the New York Times.

This move shows that both men know it's more important to reach a deal before the January 1 deadline than it is for either to win.

If a new budget deal isn’t struck within the next few weeks, hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts will go into effect. With the deadline fast approaching, the president and speaker are opting for the most efficient type of negotiation possible — a refreshing move compared to the glacial progress and lack of cooperation we’ve seen so far.

In team negotiations, egos feed each other and the momentum of a mob mentality set on winning can stand in the way of reasonable compromise. One-on-one, negotiators can stop putting on a show for their fellows and relate as two human beings with the common goal of reaching a satisfactory agreement. Hopefully this is how it will go for Obama and Boehner, without the partisan rhetoric of public debate and the stubbornness that each man’s party has come to expect — Democrats don’t want Obama to allow cuts to Medicaid and Republicans don’t want Boehner to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

“The presence of teams increased competitiveness and decreased cooperativeness and trust between negotiating parties,” a Harvard Business School professor wrote in an article for the Journal of Conflict Resolution that compares the performance of individual and team negotiators in a sample group of 232 graduate business students. 

There are, of course, downsides to two-person negotiation as well. “Without exception, teams reach deals of better quality than do their solo counterparts," claims an article on the pros and cons of group negotiations in the Marquette Law Review. The article provides several explanations for why teams are able to forge a stronger negotiating position, including division of expertise and the “good cop, bad cop” strategy.

But despite the strategic benefits of negotiating as a team rather than solo, both the Marquette Law Review and Journal of Conflict Resolution articles acknowledge that team negotiations tend to move more slowly as each concession has to be approved by each member of each team. In the case of the fiscal cliff negotiations, reaching a deal quickly is arguably as important as what that deal turns out to be.

Obama and Boehner will, of course, confer with other leaders within their respective parties, but overall it looks like a smart move to simplify the process by working this out between the two of them.