President Obama’s behavior over the past month is consistent with three different models, and I cannot figure out which one applies.

In model 1 the President is a risk-taker. He is a competent and effective negotiator who is willing to risk a recession and the ensuing political blame game in January because he thinks both will help him achieve his fiscal policy goals. I don’t think the President is willing to take such a risk, but Michael Barone makes a convincing case otherwise. You decide.

In model 1 the President has leverage because he is willing to go where Congressional Republicans are not (over the cliff).

In model 1 the President would, in the last few days of December, compare Speaker Boehner’s last offer with what the President thinks he can get after a few weeks of January blame game, then decide whether or not to accept the offer or take us over the cliff.

In model 2 the President is bluffing quite effectively. He is risk averse, and he is also a savvy, patient, and skilled negotiator. Privately he knows that he cannot allow a no-bill scenario because a recession would seriously damage his second term. But he has bluffed Congressional Republicans into thinking he is willing to take that risk, and this bluff has given him tremendous leverage. His initial offer was outrageous but designed for maximum press benefit over the next few weeks. He will demonstrate to a willingly gullible press corps that he is reasonable by showing the significant negotiating concessions he has made (from an absurd starting point) in an attempt to get a deal with those extreeeeme Republicans.

In model 2 the President continues to leverage Congressional Republicans’ fear of being blamed for no bill to press them for incremental concessions without giving up anything meaningful in exchange. Yet the President would, at the last minute, accept Speaker Boehner’s last offer, because the President is also quite afraid of a no-bill scenario. We would never know that he was bluffing since there would be an agreement and a bill.

In model 3 the President is an unskilled and ineffective negotiator who cannot or will not close a deal with those eeeevil Republicans. In this model the President does not want to go over the cliff, he is genuinely afraid of a recession, and he thinks he is a savvy and skilled negotiator who is bluffing Republicans. But he fails to understand what Speaker Boehner needs to support a final deal, or he doesn’t care and is unwilling to give it to him. Or he fails to realize how hard this kind of legislative deal is to pull together, and he mistakenly thinks he can sit with his arms folded until the last minute and then it will all suddenly, magically come together.

In model 3 President Obama doesn’t know how to compromise or isn’t capable of it. He knows only win and loss.

Model 3 could arise from overconfidence: “You are more afraid of no bill than I am, so you have to do whatever I say” (not recognizing that Republicans have a third option available).

Model 3 could arise from a sense of entitlement, “I won, the people voted for me and I campaigned on this, so I should get my way, and you must give it to me.” But Speaker Boehner is not negotiating for himself. He is an agent, negotiating on behalf of 240 House Members and 47 Senate Republicans, and he is therefore limited in his ability to agree to certain things. There may be no overlap between what President Obama feels he deserves and what Speaker Boehner can or is willing to deliver.

Or model 3 could arise from a zero-sum mentality, an inability to understand that an agreement requires both sides be able to label a deal as a win. We know the President is an effective political combatant and candidate, and we have seen him be ruthlessly attack those with whom he disagrees.

Unlike his predecessors, President Obama has not achieved any positive-sum legislative compromises with the other party. His only major deals with Republicans were the extension of all tax rates two years ago and the summer 2011 budget deal. The President now defines both of those laws as mistakes and losses rather than as honorable compromises. He sees and frames them as the results of zero-sum negotiations in which Republicans forced him to accept bad policy outcomes. And now when he has leverage, he thinks and hopes he can turn the tables, not recognizing that he still needs Speaker Boehner and House Republican votes.

President Reagan did Social Security and tax reform deals with Democrats. President Bush 41 did a budget deal and the Americans with Disabilities Act with Democrats.  President Clinton did NATFA, and welfare reform, and a balanced budget with Republicans. President Bush did the 2001 tax cut, No Child Left Behind, Medicare, two energy bills, and TARP with Democrats. Each President defined these deals as success, as principled compromises, and both parties shared the credit.

President Obama has not negotiated a single win-win middle ground legislative compromise with the other political party. I fear he may not know how to do so or be unwilling to do so because he sees all his dealings with Congressional Republicans as pure zero-sum.

The scary part about model 3 is that the President might unwittingly kill an agreement, further inflame a nasty partisan blame game, and trigger a recession even though in this model that’s not the outcome he wants. In model 3 a different negotiator (say, Mr. Bowles) could find a middle ground that could pass both the House and Senate, but President Obama cannot or will not. Some combination of legislative inexperience, a distaste for interacting with Congress, and a naturally combative rather than cooperative temperament may hobble the President’s ability to close deals with those who have different policy priorities. And if model 3 is correct, in the next few weeks it could all go sideways because we have a President who doesn’t know how to or isn’t willing to negotiate.

It may be impossible for us to know which of these models applies to President Obama. I know this is an important question, and that a clear answer would not only allow us to analyze the current negotiation, but would increase the ability of other elected policymakers to deal effectively with the President over the next four years.

(photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)