“The Price of Politics" By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 448 pgs., $30)
WASHINGTON — A combination of miscalculations, ideological rigidity and discord within the leadership of both political parties brought the U.S. government to the brink of a catastrophic default during the 2011 showdown over the federal debt ceiling, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.
“The Price of Politics," Woodward’s 17th book, chronicles President Barack Obama’s contentious and still unresolved fiscal policy battle with congressional Republicans that dominated the White House agenda for nearly all of 2011. Woodward is a Washington Post associate editor.
As the nation’s leaders raced to avert a default that could have shattered the financial markets’ confidence and imperiled the world’s economy, Obama convened an urgent meeting with top congressional leaders in the White House. According to Woodward, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pointedly told the president that the lawmakers were working on a plan and wouldn’t negotiate with him.
Obama, surprised, told Boehner and the others that they could not exclude him from the process, Woodward reports. “I’ve got to sign this bill," he is quoted as saying.
Senate Majority Leader Harry 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’ 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. The Republicans took control of the House, claiming 63 new seats, the largest turnover since the 1930s.
The book points out that the administration seemed unprepared for the road ahead, as demonstrated on election night in 2010. “Protocol dictated that the president make a congratulatory call to Boehner," Woodward writes. “The trouble was, nobody in the White House had thought to get a phone number."
The timing of the book’s publication, with less than two months left before Election Day, may pose more of a challenge for Obama than Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee. The president and his White House team occupy center stage in Woodward’s account, along with Boehner, while Romney has no role in the events covered by the book.
Lengthy narratives exploring the collapse of the Obama-Boehner talks have appeared previously in several news outlets, notably The Post and the New York Times Magazine. Woodward’s book covers that terrain as well but also breaks new ground with a detailed account of how the two sides reached the agreement now being called the “fiscal cliff" — because it will trigger large automatic spending cuts at the end of the year, unless Congress acts to change the law.
Woodward’s account — based on interviews with Obama, Boehner and others, as well as participants’ meeting notes — often shows how the rough-and-tumble nature of Washington politics has left not only bruised egos but also lingering resentment within both parties.
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."
The book portrays Obama as a man of paradoxical impulses, able to charm an audience with his folksy manner but less adept and less interested in cultivating his relationships with Reid and Pelosi. While the president worries that he can’t rely on the two leaders, they are portrayed as impatient with him. As the final details of the 2009 stimulus package were being worked out on Capitol Hill, Obama phoned the speaker’s office to exhort the troops. Pelosi put the president on speakerphone so everyone could hear.
“Warming to his subject, he continued with an uplifting speech," Woodward writes. “Pelosi reached over and pressed the mute button. They could hear Obama, but now he couldn’t hear them. The president continued speaking, his disembodied voice filling the room, and the two leaders got back to the hard numbers."
Woodward, 69, has written books on the inner workings of presidential administrations going back to the early 1970s. His work with Carl Bernstein in breaking the Watergate story prompted investigations that led to the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon, the first president in U.S. history to quit the White House.