September 13, 2012
Behind the Scenes, the Bloodiest Beltway Battle
‘The Price of Politics,’ by Bob Woodward
by Michiko Kakutani (09-07-12)
As a plethora of election-year polls and surveys indicate, Americans are fed up with a deeply dysfunctional Washington paralyzed by partisan gridlock and increasingly incapable of dealing with the daunting problems facing the nation: a White House plagued by infighting, disorganization and inconsistent leadership; a Republican Party bent on obstruction and increasingly beholden to its insurgent right wing; and a Congress riven by party rivalries, intraparty power struggles, petty turf wars and an inability to focus on long-term solutions instead of temporary Band-Aids.
Bob Woodward’s depressing and often tedious new book, “The Price of Politics,” reads like a minutely detailed illustration of these woes. It focuses on “the struggle between President Obama and the United States Congress to manage federal spending and tax policy for the three and one-half years between 2009 and the summer of 2012.” And the bulk of its narrative is devoted to behind-the-scenes negotiations that took place in the summer of 2011, as the country teetered on the brink of a potentially catastrophic default over the federal debt ceiling.
Much of this story has already been told in lengthy articles in The New York Times Magazine by Matt Bai and in The Washington Post by Peter Wallsten, Lori Montgomery and Scott Wilson. “The Price of Politics” adds some colorful new details to earlier accounts and examines the aftermath of the failure of the President and Speaker John A. Boehner (right) to reach a “grand bargain” in July 2011 involving cutting the deficit, rewriting the tax code and rolling back the cost of entitlements. It also describes tensions between the White House and Capitol Hill, between the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats and between Mr. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader.
Beyond the most hard-core fiscal policy wonks, however, it’s difficult to imagine anyone outside the Beltway being interested in this volume’s granular telling and retelling of these matters, its almost blow-by-blow chronicle of the maneuvering, haggling, grandstanding and ideological positioning that have taken root on both sides of the aisle.
Most of “The Price of Politics” sticks like Velcro to its narrow focus on the debt-ceiling negotiations, declining really to grapple with broader questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis it inherited after the 2008 crash: the perceived successes and failures of its stimulus program; the infighting among members of its economic team; its much debated stewardship of the banking crisis and Wall Street reform; and its continuing struggles with unemployment and an underwater housing market. For these issues, the reader is better off turning to books like “The Escape Artists” by Noam Scheiber, “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind, or Michael Hirsh’s “Capital Offense.”
Like Mr. Woodward’s earlier books, “The Price of Politics” is based on lots of insider interviews, conducted mostly on background — meaning, Mr. Woodward writes, “the information could be used in the book but none of the sources would be identified by name” — along with supporting documents, meeting notes, e-mails and diaries. As a result, the narrative tends to reflect the spin of people who talked the most — or the most persuasively — with Mr. Woodward: in this case, it would seem, Republican and Democratic Congressional officials, and some administration insiders.
Large swaths of this book concern the depressing blame game the administration and Congressional Republicans waged against each other after talks between President Obama and Mr. Boehner about the grand bargain abruptly collapsed. What caused that collapse? Depends which side you believe.
Republicans have argued that the White House, nervous about how Congressional Democrats and the party’s base would react, “moved the goal posts” at the last minute, requesting an additional $400 billion on the revenue side.
Democrats have suggested that Mr. Boehner walked away because he could not rally Republican support for the deal. Within the White House, Mr. Woodward writes, many of those involved in the negotiations argued that Mr. Boehner “did not come close to steering his own ship”: “Instead of being a visionary trying to make a grand bargain, Boehner had, almost all alone, crawled out on a limb and watched as Eric Cantor and the Tea Party sawed it off.”
Mr. Woodward (left) provides a dramatic account of the angry phone call in which Mr. Boehner told Mr. Obama that the deal was off. Mr. Woodward writes that Rob Nabors, a White House official, remembers the usually cool president gripping the phone so tightly that it looked as if it might break, displaying what Mr. Woodward calls “a flash of pure fury.”
Mr. Boehner tells Mr. Woodward, “He was spewing coals.” This is what Mr. Boehner said he told the president: “I’d put revenue on there if we had real changes in entitlement programs. Every time we get there, you and I agree; all of a sudden you guys keep backing up, backing up, backing up. And now you call me and you want more revenue. It ain’t going to happen. I’m done with it.”
Many aspects of this book’s portrait of Mr. Obama echo reports from other journalists and Washington insiders: a president who has not spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, and who has similarly distant (if not downright tense) relationships with business executives; an idealistic but sometimes naïve and overconfident chief executive with little managerial experience and little understanding of the horse-trading and deal-making that make Washington run (skills that, say, Lyndon B. Johnson possessed in spades).
The White House was in such disarray in the wake of the Republicans’ big win in the 2010 midterm elections, Mr. Woodward reports, that when the president went to make a congratulatory call to Mr. Boehner, the incoming House speaker, the Obama staff had to scramble to find a phone number for him, eventually turning to a fishing buddy of somebody who worked for Mr. Boehner.
Another scene in this book, from early 2009, describes Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, then the House speaker, working with Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, on last-minute details of the stimulus package when the president calls. As Mr. Obama — who’s been put on speakerphone — begins to deliver a high-minded message about how important the bill is, Mr. Woodward reports, Ms. Pelosi “reached over and pressed the mute button on her phone,” so they could hear him but he couldn’t hear them as they continued number-crunching the bill.
As for Mr. Boehner, he praises the Treasury Secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, but criticizes the rest of the Obama team. In hindsight, the speaker tells Mr. Woodward: “They never had their act together. The President, I think, was ill served by his team. Nobody in charge, no process. I just don’t know how the place works.”
It’s an accusation that echoes comments, cited in Mr. Suskind’s “Confidence Men,” that Lawrence H. Summers (right), the former chief White House economic adviser, reportedly made to the White House budget director, Peter Orszag: “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge.” (Mr. Summers has disputed comments attributed to him in that book, saying they were distorted or taken out of context.)
In the past, Mr. Woodward has been known for writing straight-ahead narratives, with little analysis, context or assessment. This changed with the last two of his four books on George W. Bush’s administration, “The War Within” and “State of Denial,” in which he came to the conclusion that President Bush had “displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions” instead of real leadership.
“The Price of Politics” ends with similar editorializing. Mr. Woodward writes that “the debt-limit crisis was a time of peril for the United States, its economy and its place in the global financial order” and that “neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled it particularly well,” unable to transcend “their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.”
His harshest words are reserved for Mr. Obama: “It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition.
“But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business. There is occasional discussion in this book about Presidents Reagan and Clinton, what they did or would have done. Open as both are to serious criticism, they nonetheless largely worked their will.
“Obama has not. The mission of stabilizing and improving the economy is incomplete.”
A version of this review appeared in print on September 8, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Behind the Scenes, the Bloodiest Beltway Battle.