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How Washington Looks to Sun Tzu for Leadership

White House

President Obama has reversed course to adopt a Leadership 101 tactic that he and his advisers ruthlessly mocked: Get to know the opposition.

The president extended a rare invitation Wednesday night for Republican lawmakers to join him for dinner at a restaurant near the White House. He ate lunch Thursday with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. And next week, at his request, Obama will go to Capitol Hill to meet separately with both parties in the House and Senate.

Traveling to Congress is a modest act of humility for a president who has told officials privately that such a gesture would diminish the stature of his office. In a news conference Friday, Obama bristled at the thought that he bore any responsibility for the fiscal standoff with the GOP.

 “I’m presenting a fair deal; the fact that they don’t take it means that I should, somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind-mild with these folks and convince them to do what’s right,” the president said.

A recently departed White House aide, Tommy Vietor, said on Twitter, “So sick of narrative that if Obama would just invite Boehner over for a case [of] Merlot and carton of reds things would be fine.”

And yet, the president is schmoozing Republicans. The about-face could be a cynical show for voters who want their president to at least try to create a governing coalition in Washington. Senior Democratic officials, including some close to the White House, say party-paid polling on the president’s approval scores is alarming. The fear is that voters are punishing both the GOP and White House for the latest budget standoff, jeopardizing Obama’s political capital just three months into his second term.

This also could be a legitimate and sustained new strategy. Here are some ways that could benefit Obama, Republicans, and the country.

Learn your foes’ weaknesses. Successful leaders in private and public sectors keep their enemies close so that they can learn their weaknesses, weak links, and divisions. For Obama, the schisms within the GOP are big and plentiful. It would serve his agenda to get an intimate look.

Build trust. The public doesn’t want Washington lurching from one self-inflicted crisis to another. The business community needs a reliable government, too. Those aims can’t be achieved without Obama and GOP leaders adjusting cuts under so-called sequestration and moving their parties to a major budget deal that protects future generations. There will be no deal until both sides trust one another to keep their promises and give each other political cover. And there is no trust without a relationship. The least our leaders can do is to get to know one another.

Know your rivals' positions. Seems simple, right? But, according to Ezra Klein of The Washington Post'sWonkblog, an extraordinary number of Republicans haven't bothered to understand what Obama is offering on tax hikes and spending cuts. NBC News reported that at least one senator said he learned details of the White House bid for the first time last night. Shame on GOP lawmakers for not doing their homework. But it's also worth wondering why Obama waited so long to reach out to Republicans. A big part of the presidency is communicating an agenda; if his audience isn't listening, he's not getting the job done.

Know your rivals’ limits. A White House talking point is that Republicans won’t compromise further on taxes (Congress raised taxes in 2012). How does Obama know that? He doesn’t. He is assuming that Republicans are telling the truth when they publicly posture against more revenue. What he doesn’t know--and hasn’t bothered to find out--is just how far GOP leaders will go for a deal. Republicans are just as guilty: They have not truly taken the measure of Obama and his limits.

Comity is good optics. Even if this is a show, voters may buy it and reward Obama. High-profile charm offensives in the past have helped Obama stem declining approval ratings. There is a risk: If voters doubt his sincerity, the president will undermine his credibility. People tend to like and trust Obama; he doesn’t want to squander that goodwill. We saw what happened to President George W. Bush when voters stopped trusting his word--first on Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. They essentially tuned him out for the rest of his second term. Obama and his team have been caught grossly exaggerating the impact of the sequestration cuts. He can't afford more blows to his credibility.

Prove a point. Obama and his team have insisted for months that Republicans are too extreme to deal. If he reaches out to the GOP with humility and sincerity over a sustained period of time and is still snubbed, the Republican Party will be signing its death warrant. Obama has it within his own power to eliminate in the minds of voters any false equivalencies.

Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier is the Senior Political Columnist and Editorial Director of National Journal. Prior to joining NJ, he worked at the Associated Press for 20 years, most recently as Washington Bureau Chief. A Detroit native, Fournier began his career in Arkansas, first with the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and then with the Arkansas Democrat and the AP, where he covered the state legislature and Gov. Bill Clinton.

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