When it comes to Negotiation, Biden is as Underrated as Trump is Overrated
By Grande Lum and Andrea Kupfer Schneider
America deserves a commander-in-chief whose persuasion impulses seek to unify rather than divide, to protect rather than hurt, to collaborate rather than extort, and to be tough when needed. We are negotiation and conflict resolution scholars and practitioners. Over thirty years, we have taught negotiation to hundreds of students. Biden’s negotiation style will be ideal to help this country heal from its wounds after the past four years. Having traveled his own journey to find purpose through tragic personal loss, he has been able to relate to those he would have to negotiate with as president — Republican politicians, world leaders, and the American people. He is the negotiator-in-chief we should trust to take us forward and he has the repertoire of negotiation skills to actually get that done.
Voting for a president is akin to hiring an agent. He will be a negotiator on your behalf and for many others. And it is easy to understand why many in this country believed that hiring a person who sold himself as a fierce, take-no-prisoners negotiator would resonate with those who felt that politicians and the American system had left them behind or had ignored their needs. After all, no one wants an agent who can’t be trusted to take care of you on what matters most to you.
Perhaps no president has made his negotiation skills more of an issue than our current incumbent. During the campaign, he touted his business acumen and he promised to revamp numerous deals From asserting that that Mexico would pay for the wall on our southern border to pulling out of the nuclear accord with Iran on the belief that he could negotiate a better deal, many were captivated by the idea of a strong forceful US leader. In most polls, Trump has shown best as compared to Biden on the question of who would be better on the economy based largely on Trump’s reputation as a businessman and negotiator.
Yet over the past four years, we have now seen the impact of negotiator that has only one trick up his sleeve — bullying. As recent revelations have made even more abundantly apparent, Trump was neither successful as a businessman — where he declared bankruptcy multiple times; has been sued repeatedly for fraud; and had banks who cut off his credit — nor has that approach worked as president. Mexico didn’t pay for the wall, China did not back down on trade deals, and there is no renegotiated nuclear agreement with Iran. North Korea is as unstable as ever and Russia appears to be both interfering in our elections and killing our soldiers in Afghanistan without punishment.
Much like what happens over time with a playground bully who pummels an unsuspecting child — a limited repertoire for only being a bully will backfire eventually. Leading a country is not a one-time sucker punch on the playground — it is repeated interactions with friends and foes to accomplish our national interests.
Foreign leaders are not surprised anymore or caught off guard by Trump’s claims. They often choose to leave the playground, as it were, and come back with additional allies to beat the bully. Or, as in the case of China, are building their own better playground and now locking us out. Domestically, we have seen the same responses. Early on, Trump’s bullying tweets about women, minorities, disabled people, veterans, and reporters were shocking and often met with silence or avoidance. Now, these tweets become memes, t-shirt slogans, and even fundraising opportunities for the targets — a result that Trump cannot intend. Our thin-skinned bully has lost his power. Furthermore, he now appears to prefer to burn down the playground than imagine anyone else on top of the heap.
This is not to say that assertiveness on behalf of our country is not crucial. We all need a negotiator in chief to protect our national interests, to improve our lives, and to stand up to other bullies around the world. Rather than cozying up to bullies, a more effective negotiator for the US would be taking on global bullies and calling them out. When questioned about the ongoing persecution of Uighur Muslims, in marked contrast to Trump’s obsequiousness, Biden said this about China’s President Xi, ““This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.”
As a boy, Joe Biden took on a bully for kicking his sister off her bicycle as well as taking on others who taunted him for his own stutter. Over his career, this experience has animated his drive to stand up for those who have been victimized, including his leadership of the Violence Against Women Act. We know that he will stand up to global — and domestic — bullies as he has a long history of not backing down.
But what we also know is that Joe Biden — as a three-dimensional negotiator in chief — has additional negotiation skills in his tool box. Research has repeatedly shown that the most effective negotiators have a repertoire of skills including assertiveness, but also empathy, flexibility, and trustworthiness. There is now no doubt that the President lacks these essential range of skills and the results of his negotiations on behalf of this country repeatedly have shown the gap.
Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that the best presidents encompass empathy, humility, hope, and resilience. We see that translated into effective negotiation skills by leaders who are curious about their negotiation counterparts and their lives and interests, who are humble enough to ask questions and learn from others, who will be optimistic about what they can accomplish through negotiation and through building relationships, and who will bounce back from adversity, or failed negotiations, to try again.
Our country deserves a negotiator-in-chief who bases hard decisions, like those involving Covid-19, on science, rather than on an alternative reality devoid of critical facts. And our country needs a negotiator who realizes he is not always the smartest person in the room and consults with experts before taking action.
When one assumes that negotiations can be problem-solving, that counterparts can be valuable, and that fair outcomes are a goal, building trust and relationships are a key skill. Where Trump might have been able to reach some compromise — on infrastructure, on immigration, or even on health care — his inability to do more than bully has meant that no action has resulted in four years. Central to Biden’s view on any issue is his belief in a multilateral approach. Biden’s excellent reputation as a negotiator comes from his ability to work with all parties around the table to get something done. In his long Senate career, he was known for his bipartisan outreach and ability to listen to others with whom he disagreed. Biden is seen as a man of his word, a person trusted by Democratic and Republican colleagues alike.
Let’s not burn down the playground — let’s elect someone who is prepared to represent this nation.
Grande Lum is provost of Menlo College and formerly served as the Director of the Community Relations Service under President Obama. Andrea Kupfer Schneider is a professor of law and Director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Marquette University.