By Bob Woodward
In this sometimes-tedious account of the last three and one-half years – from just before Obama’s inauguration through the summer of 2012 – Woodward paints a disturbing picture of a dysfunctional federal government.
Although Woodward finds few blameless individuals in either party, it is the president who fares the worst. Obama is exposed as a poseur, a man for whom words have no intrinsic meaning, but are merely tools with which to manipulate others. When the words are no longer useful, he discards them and pretends they were never said. The book is replete with examples.
Three weeks before his inauguration he called Republican and Democrat congressional leaders to a meeting in which he invited everyone’s ideas to address the national economic crisis. Three days after inauguration, the congressional leadership was again summoned, but the tone had changed. When Eric Cantor offered copies of the Republican recovery plan he was rebuffed. “Elections have consequences,” the president said. “And Eric, I won.”
The $800 billion stimulus bill introduced on January 26 contained not one Republican proposal. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s response to Republican suggestions, more often than not was: ”We have the votes. F***’em.” With Democrat majorities in both houses the president considered Republicans an unnecessary encumbrance.
When the House voted on the stimulus bill, packed with spending for each of the congressional districts, it received not a single Republican vote. When Emanuel expressed his disappointment. Cantor responded, “You really could have gotten some of our support. You just refused to listen to what we were saying.”
“What really surprised Cantor, though, was how badly the White House had played what should have been a winning hand. Not only had he missed an opportunity to get the Republicans in the boat with him, he had actually pushed them away. The failure was one of human relations. There had been no sincere contact, no inclusiveness, no real listening.”
It was indicative of Obama’s disengagement that when Republicans seized control of the House, with an astonishing gain of 63 seats, Obama was almost unable to make the obligatory congratulatory call to House Speaker John Boehner. Neither the president nor anyone else at the White House had a phone number where Boehner could be reached. The call was made after a mad scramble to locate someone who knew the number.
It is impossible to imagine a Reagan or a Clinton in such straits. Both former presidents, although of very different political persuasions, understood the necessity for a president to establish cordial relationships with Congress. Obama never built any bridges and didn’t even know the identity of key players. Instead he insisted on marathon meetings with leaders of both parties and spent them pontificating about what needed to be done (and telling Boehner how to do it).
Having begun his presidency by rolling over Republicans he was faced with the need to reset relations after the 2010 elections. But old habits are hard to break. In a speech at George Washington University, preliminary to negations over the debt ceiling, he castigated Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” as “less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.” Cantor who attended the speech with Ryan said afterward that he was appalled ”the president had poisoned the well like that.”
The White House under Obama is described as disorganized and leaderless. Democrat leaders Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate both demonstrate disdain for Obama’s leadership abilities.
This was substantiated in embarrassing detail when President Obama summoned the top four congressional leaders to the White House on Saturday morning, July 23, 2011. Boehner had withdrawn from negotiations to raise the debt limit the night before. There was an agreement with the White House for “$800 billion in revenue,” he stated at a press conference, but only through tax reform. The breakdown was because at the last minute, the president “demanded $400 billion more. The White House moved the goalposts,” he said. “Dealing with the White House is like dealing with a bowl of Jell-O.” (Woodward writes that Obama denied having made the last minute demand.)
At the White House meeting on Saturday, “Boehner said that he believed he and the other three leaders had a plan. We think we can work this out. Give us a little more time. We’ll get back to you. We are not going to negotiate with you.
Obama objected, saying that he couldn’t be left out of the process and wanted the negotiations to continue. ‘I’ve got to sign this bill,” he reminded them. ‘Mr. President,’ Boehner challenged, ‘as I read the Constitution, the Congress writes the laws. You get to decide if you want to sign them.’”
After seven months of negotiating with the president and the administration, Boehner was done. Time was running out.
“Then Harry Reid spoke up. The four congressional leaders want to speak privately, he said. Give us some time. This was it. Congress was taking over. The leaders were asking the president to leave a meeting he had called in his own house.”
The congressional plan fell apart as well. In excruciating detail Woodward reveals how the Budget Control Act of 2011, which contains the destructive sequester trigger, was negotiated, passed and embraced by Obama. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan criticized the bill for failing to address “the scary, yet simple” math showing that Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare spending were out of control.
Woodward’s book is replete with Democrats castigating “Tea Party” Republicans elected in 2010 for being intransigent about raising taxes. But the Democrats’ criticisms reveal the core problem that makes compromise so difficult. Obama progressives see the nation’s economic problem as insufficient revenue to accomplish their “fairness” agenda, while the Ryan/Cantor contingent say profligate spending is what is driving the nation to financial ruin.
Boehner appears as the consummate Washington politician, now checked by the Republicans elected in 2010. The same description fits Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and, on the Democrat side Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, as well as others in both parties who regularly favor parochial and financially powerful special interests over the national interest.
Missing in Woodward’s book, otherwise filled with day by day and sometimes hour by hour insider accounts of the Obama years, is the Obamacare story, which is only mentioned in passing. This reviewer thought it a curious omission. It would seem that this legislation, which consumed so much time and political capital, should have been prominent.
It is difficult to recommend Woodward’s book. It is not pleasant reading, even for political junkies. Woodward lays out, often in mind-numbing detail, just how dysfunctional the American political system has become and, not surprisingly, he reveals that the president lacks negotiating skills as well as an understanding of how the free market works.
As this reader plowed through Woodward’s book, fellow blogger James Best’s recent incisive post came to mind:
“The country made it through these past four years. We survived. Mostly thanks to the 2010 election. But make no mistake, serious damage has been done. An election cannot, in and of itself, put things right. The debt is overwhelming. Progressives are burrowed deep in every department of government. We cannot trust the judiciary system. The mainstream media is corrupt. Education at every level is dominated by progressive partisans. Republicans are waiting for us to relax our vigilance so they can backslide into the kind of fawning behavior that ingratiates them with beltway society.
A Romney win in this election is only one battle in a long war. This election, however, is like the Battle of Midway. If we lose, the country is lost. If we win, we can continue to fight, and we’ll be fighting from a stronger footing.