Early indications seemed to suggest that President Obama would be a conflict resolution president. During his campaign for office, he pledged to bring a new tone to Washington and to make every attempt to reach across the aisle. He engaged many new stakeholders through the internet and social media, promising to hear all their concerns and work tirelessly to address them. Early in his tenure as President, he met over dinner with conservative journalists and engaged in open dialogue over the more serious issues of our time. He also made several attempts to meet with the Republican caucus and to reach out directly to some of the members of Congress who were more ideologically-opposed to his policies and positions. Abroad, he made several televised appeals to citizens and leaders in the Muslim-world and Iran, respectfully appealing to "our common humanity that brings us together."

And although some on the left and the right in this country saw this approach as too meek and compromising, it seemed to pay-off domestically as he steadily managed to pass a host of important legislation including his landmark healthcare reform bill.

But times have changed. The launch of the antigovernment Tea Party movement in 2009, resulting in a caucus in the House which today includes 62 sitting Republicans, and the signing of Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge by 238 members of the House and 41 members of the Senate (all except 13 sitting Republicans), has led to an era of obstructionism and polarization not seen in Washington since before the Civil War.

Enter the campaign for the presidency. The current Republican primary season has ushered in a whole new level of enmity and vitriol to Washington political discourse. In addition to a continual barrage of attacks on President Obama's policies and person, the Republican candidates have turned on one another with such viciousness and indignity that the probabilities for any type of constructive dialogue over serious issues in Washington is today at zero. Americans seem to sit by and watch this titillating new reality show, quietly amused by it and endorsing it with our complacency.

So what is the leader of the free world to do in order to continue to govern and address the current employment, debt, financial, education, infrastructure, poverty and climate crises, to name just a few? Especially given that he has now entered the race for re-election, and will therefore unleash the dogs of political resistance.

Scientists who study conflict and negotiations have a term for this problem: the intense mixed-motive dilemma. These are situations where the parties to a conflict (read legislative battle, election, etc.) share critically important common and competing goals. The competing goals are painfully obvious. But the common goals at stake here today include the strength of the US economy, the functioning of our (big or small) government, the health, education and future of our children, and our status and ability to lead effectively in the world.

Continued in Part 2 forthcoming next week...

 

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.