Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has a new book about the state of American politics entitled The Price of Politics. I have not read the book yet, but the excerpts printed in a Washington Post story by Steve Luxenberg betray the heavy editorial hand of Woodward skewing the evidence (which, absent his analysis is genuinely fascinating journalism) he gathered from numerous Washington insiders:
After explaining that Congressional leaders tried to cut Obama out of negotiations even though Obama as, you know, PRESIDENT, has to agree to any legislative act.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) then said the four leaders wanted to speak privately, asking Obama to leave a meeting he had called “in his own house,” in Woodward’s words. The president, fuming, agreed to let them talk. “This was it,” Woodward writes. “Congress was taking over.”
Congress’s reemergence as a political force is one of the book’s underlying themes. For decades, Capitol Hill has been ceding influence and authority to the White House, especially to presidents who were bent on expanding the powers of the executive branch. In Woodward’s account, the balance of power has shifted at least temporarily back to the legislative branch during the past two years, aided by the Obama administration’s failure to nurture the alliances that it needed to offset the GOP’s huge victory in the 2010 midterm elections.
Has it really? It seems as though Obama has taken numerous unilateral executive actions while Congress has failed to pass anything of value since 2010. Put it this way, if we remove the President entirely from the equation, what has Congress wrought? It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that even the bills that have passed, like the Affordable Care Act and the Stimulus, required the President to step in and tell the Congress to do their job. Far from holding the balance of power, Congress in the modern age is the ultimate expression of an abdication of power.
And yet, Woodward appears to be portraying Obama as out of line for complaining that Congress was trying to shut him out of their own failed process.
Woodward’s portrait of Obama, sketched through a series of scenes from meeting rooms and phone calls, reveals a man perhaps a bit too confident in his negotiating skills and in his ability to understand his adversaries. Obama is described as believing that he had a particular bead on the motivations and temperament of Boehner, now in his 11th term as a House member from a district in southwest Ohio.
By Woodward’s account, Boehner fit a type that Obama believed he knew well from his eight years as a state legislator in Illinois. “John Boehner is like a Republican state senator,” the president tells his inner circle, according to Woodward. “He’s a golf-playing, cigarette-smoking, country-club Republican who’s there to make deals. He’s very familiar to me.”
That certainly sounds like a gross misreading of Boehner, right? Well Bob Woodward also notes:
Boehner sized up his adversary during one of his early private meetings with Obama, telling Woodward: “I just started chuckling to myself. Because all you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking merlot, and I look across the table and there is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette,” the gum for smokers trying to break their habit.
So…he was a smoker. Obama and Boehner negotiated their deal on the golf course. And in the end they had a deal before it crumbled. What exactly did Obama have wrong?
Obama’s advisers felt the need to warn their boss that he was underestimating the political risks of dealing directly with the GOP leader. The president, bent on making a “grand bargain” with Boehner on deficit reduction, is characterized as sticking to a kinder and gentler view of his negotiating partner. “His motivation is pure,” the president told his aides. “He just can’t control the forces in his caucus now.”
Obama succeeded in getting Boehner to tentatively agree to as much as $800 billion in new revenue, a major concession, only to surprise the speaker with a request for an additional $400 billion as their negotiations neared the final stages. Unable to muster support among his lieutenants for such a proposal, Boehner ducked the president’s phone calls before pulling out of the talks for good.
Again, how is the President wrong here? The deal faltered because Boehner couldn’t control his caucus. Wasn’t that Obama’s whole point?
In his final chapter, Woodward faults both Obama and Boehner for their handling of the fiscal crisis, concluding that “neither was able to transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas. Rather than fixing the problem, they postponed it. . . . When they met resistance from other leaders in their parties, they did not stand their ground.”
In defense of Obama AND Boehner, the whole “grand bargain” that Woodward spent the previous chapters describing represented both leaders “transcend[ing] their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.” Far from Woodward’s vilification of both men, the evidence that Woodward himself presented. That both continued to try and push the deal is not evidence of anything more than a standard negotiation.
He has tougher words for Obama. “It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition,” he writes. “But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on important matters of national business. . . . Obama has not.”
Because they’re magic? The last President who worked his will, consequences and resistance be damned lost his job…because of Woodward. Is the President supposed to work his will by turning popular opinion against his adversaries? Congress has between a 9-13% approval rating. What more is there to do when the opposition is willing to become less popular than Communist invasion in order to deny the President a second term?
Cantor warned Biden that many new House Republicans were willing to risk a default in their zeal to reduce government spending, telling the vice president: “We really have members who don’t get the need to raise the debt ceiling.”
“So you’re looking for Democrats to be more responsible than you?” Biden said. “You can’t use the irresponsibility of your own members to get your way.”
Cantor is quoted as replying: “Why don’t you just say it’s the crazy Republicans made you do it?”
But lest we walk away before seeing how focused Bob Woodward is on casting Obama as the bad guy despite the evidence, here’s his take on another instance of Obama screwing up by “not being a partisan and actually cultivating a relationship with Republican lawmakers despite what I criticized him for a few chapters ago.”
For example, in 2010, the Democratic congressional leadership wanted Obama to stand fast against a Republican call for a two-year extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts. Obama decided to go along with an extension. Woodward quotes an angry Reid as telling the White House: “You go sell it. Not my deal, not my problem. . . . Hope you can line up the Senate Democrats behind you because I’m not going to.”
Is Bob Woodward writing stream-of-consciousness while on Mescaline in an effort to recapture Hunter S. Thompson? Because if so, it’s not working.