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The Backscratcher: Bob Woodward’s Anti-Obama Bias

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The most vivid scene in Bob Woodward’s new book has almost nothing to do with his central narrative, but reveals a lot about the narrator. The scene takes place in February of 2009, as Congress is laboring to ward off an economic collapse. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker, is hunkered down in her office with Harry Reid, her Senate counterpart, to negotiate a stimulus bill that can pass both chambers. This is no easy task. The bill must be modest enough to survive a Republican filibuster, but ambitious enough to satisfy Pelosi’s liberal caucus. But, then, these are veteran legislators—born deal-makers at that. They get to work with all the seriousness you’d expect.

At which point the president calls in via speaker phone and starts droning on about “unity of action” and “unity of purpose” (Woodward’s paraphrasing). It’s the kind of blather that can wow a stadium full of college students but means nothing in the power corridors of Washington. Pelosi and Reid thank the president coldly, and yet he doesn’t take the hint. Finally, Pelosi reaches over and hits the mute button. “They could hear Obama, but now he couldn’t hear them,” Woodward writes. “The president continued speaking, his disembodied voice filling the room, and the two leaders got back to the hard numbers.”

This is riveting stuff. Three weeks into his term, and the top Democrats in Congress had already written off Obama as a self-important windbag! Not surprisingly, Pelosi has denied the episode, prompting Woodward to release a transcript from a source in the room. But setting aside whether the scene is literally true—and I’d put my money on Woodward—the real question relates to its implication: Does it mean what Woodward insinuates? Was Obama a bystander while Pelosi and Reid pulled the country back from the abyss?

Not even close. In fact, the stimulus bill was heavily shaped by the White House. If anything, Pelosi was the bystander in the endgame. The final contours of the stimulus package were hashed out among a handful of Senate moderates with two of the president’s top advisers—Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Budget Director Peter Orszag—helping to broker the negotiations. Pelosi felt so betrayed when she heard about their deal that she unloaded on a top White House official. (Woodward doesn’t provide enough detail to say for sure, but I suspect the meeting he’s referring to took place over the next few days, when Reid and the White House smoothed things over by tweaking some numbers.)

So it goes with The Price of Politics. Critics have complained about the tediousness of this latest Woodward volume, which focuses mostly on the debt-ceiling negotiations between the White House and Republicans during the summer of 2011. The reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post point out that the ground has been tilled by a succession of other writers, most exhaustively by Matt Bai of The New York Times. But I didn’t find Woodward’s book unusually tedious. In fact, I learned a lot from it. What I found it to be was remarkably slanted.

This was all the more jarring because Woodward is famous for his distinct lack of slant. His books are scrupulously reported but annoyingly literal. At their worst, they read more like stenography than fully hatched stories. The only hint of a worldview he injects is the worldview of the establishment. He reflexively flatters the powerful.

So in one sense the book is a departure: it is relentlessly biased against the president. Woodward argues that the White House and Congress failed to reach a major deficit-reduction deal last summer because Obama didn’t provide the necessary leadership, even though this thesis is untethered from Woodward’s own reporting, to say nothing of reality.

But, in another sense, the book is perfectly in sync with Woodward’s oeuvre. There is a body of respectable Washington opinion that considers Obama unworthy of the presidency: he hadn’t put in his time before running, didn’t grasp the majesty of the office, evinced no respect for the way things were done. He not only won without courting the city’s elders, he had the bad manners to keep his distance even after winning. This is the view Woodward distills.

Woodward telegraphs his contempt from the get-go. He sets his prologue in 2006 at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, the sort of stuffed-shirt affair Washington journalists spend their early careers dreaming of, and the rest of their careers trying to avoid. The keynote speaker was then-Senator Obama, who joked about how overhyped he was only a year into his term. It sounds like winning shtick, but Woodward, a kind of unofficial mascot at these gatherings, is morose. “Obama had not once mentioned the party or high purpose. His speech, instead, was about Obama, his inexperience, and in the full paradox of the moment, what he had not done,” he belches. “Two and a half years later, he was president-elect of the United States.” Oooo-kaaay then.

The voice Woodward affects is exasperated and petty, like a spouse several decades into a loveless marriage. “It was classic Obama,” he writes, summing up a July 2011 press conference. “You had to listen very carefully and read the transcript several times to spot the inconsistencies.” He delights in catching Obama in tiny lies. At one point the president tells Woodward that “[t]here was discussion about Social Security, conceptually,” but that a deal involving Social Security was “not on the table.” This is at worst a minor fudge—Medicare and Medicaid were clearly the focus of the spending side of the negotiations, not Social Security. But Woodward delights in busting the president over it. “This, however, was not the case. In the offers White House staff exchanged with [House Speaker John] Boehner’s staff, changes to Social Security benefits had been explicitly mentioned.”

Even the most innocuous verbal tics annoy Woodward. He mocks them by annotating dialogue Beavis and Butt-head-style. To wit:

Then, after making it clear that he blamed Republicans, [Obama] said, “Let me repeat … I’m not interested in blame.”

Or this:

“I will explain and defend,” the president said, adding, “I am not trying to cast blame,” as he cast blame.


The meat of the action takes place between late June of 2011, when Boehner and Obama began negotiating directly to pare the deficit by up to $4 trillion, and the end of July, after the big deal had collapsed but the two sides still had to agree on a smaller package. (The House GOP had demanded deficit-reduction as its price for raising the debt ceiling, a limit on the amount of money the U.S. government can borrow at any one time. Failure to raise it could have thrown the government into default and triggered a global financial meltdown.)

The broad contours of the negotiations were as follows: Democrats would agree to cut spending by roughly $3 trillion dollars over a decade, including entitlement programs like Medicare that they considered sacred. In return, Republicans would agree to raise revenue by something approaching $1 trillion. The talks took a series of baroque turns, most of which Woodward catalogs. But the bottom line is that Democrats were willing to make the cuts; Republicans rejected the revenue increases. And so the talks broke down.

There is little in Woodward’s account that undermines this conclusion—in fact, his reporting largely supports it. In May of 2011, Boehner’s deputy, Eric Cantor, and the second-ranking Senate Republican, Jon Kyl, had opened a kind of prelude negotiation with Joe Biden and several top Democratic officials from the administration and Congress. The Republicans balked every time the subject of revenues came up. After Boehner and Obama took over the negotiations the following month, Democrats kept pressing for tax increases. Each time, according to Woodward, they ran smack into Cantor, who had joined Boehner at the bargaining table as the voice of House conservatives—the bad cop to Boehner’s good cop. At best, Cantor said, he’d be willing to close a few small tax loopholes and then offset them with new tax cuts. He reiterated this so often that it became something of a joke.

It is certainly true that, in spite of this resistance, Boehner proposed a deal involving $800 billion in revenue over a decade. The idea would be to gin up the $800 billion through “tax reform” rather than higher taxes—that is, lowering tax rates while closing loopholes in such a way as to increase the government’s take on balance. But, as Woodward shows, the distinction was lost on conservatives, who were dead-set against anything that raised money for the U.S. Treasury. When word of the negotiation leaked in early July, Boehner held a call with the entire Republican caucus to assure them that tax increases were off the table, just in case they got the wrong idea. It didn’t work—they got the wrong idea. House conservatives repeatedly told Boehner they considered “revenue increases” tantamount to the dreaded “tax increases.” Boehner himself concedes to Woodward that while he was negotiating with Obama, Cantor and his other lieutenants “kept saying we’re not going to do a big deal [involving revenues], can’t do a big deal.”  

By contrast, Democrats had willingly, if grudgingly, entertained Medicare cuts dating back to the Cantor-Biden discussions that began in May. And Woodward affirms this basic open-mindedness. When Obama summoned Pelosi and Reid to the Oval Office to brief them on the deal they would have to round up votes for—“I’ve got to do this,” he told them, according to Woodward—the two Congressional leaders were understandably grouchy and non-committal. But neither opposed Obama, and Pelosi signaled that Democrats were more likely than not to fall in line. “I totally disagree with this,” Pelosi said. “[But] you are our president, and we are in a time of crisis.” Woodward elaborates: “If he decided he had to do it, she would make sure he had every opportunity to present his case.” Other neutral accounts have described Pelosi and Reid as even more accepting.

In itself, the contrast between the two parties here is fairly stark. It becomes even starker once you realize that Republicans were on the verge of winning much bigger concessions from Democrats on spending cuts and Medicare than they would have given up in revenue. After all, as Pelosi repeatedly pointed out, the tax cuts George W. Bush passed in 2001 and 2003 were slated to expire at the end of 2012. If Obama were to win re-election, he could have scared up nearly $3.5 trillion simply by letting them expire. He could have secured $800 billion by letting them all expire and re-passing tax cuts for all but the most affluent (which Republicans would be hard-pressed to oppose). On the other hand, Republicans would have no hope of cutting Medicare unless Democrats gave them political cover.

Easily the most controversial moment in the negotiations was the run-up to their final collapse, and Woodward spends thousands of words recreating it. On Tuesday, July 19, a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six announced they had hammered out a framework for cutting the deficit by $3.7 trillion over a decade, including $1.2 trillion in new revenue. (On closer examination, the number turned out to be more like $2 trillion, but let’s go with Woodward’s number for the sake of argument.) Obama now had a problem: if Republican knuckle-draggers like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia could accept $1.2 trillion, then the $800 billion he’d extracted from Boehner looked pretty puny.

The precise details of what happened next are still in dispute. But here is what every disinterested account—Matt Bai’s, a Washington Post reconstruction sympathetic to the GOP, even Woodward’s, if one can read between the lines—agrees happened. Later on Tuesday, a White House aide told Boehner’s staff that the president might need another $400 billion in revenue, but didn’t portray it as an ultimatum. For two days the sides kept negotiating over various amounts, suggesting Boehner was not overly discouraged. On Thursday, July 21, Obama told Boehner that the extra $400 billion would be necessary if the big deficit deal required a lot of Democratic votes. But if that proved impossible, he added, they could do a deal involving the original $800 billion, only with slightly smaller spending cuts. Had Boehner been able to move forward, nothing Obama said should have scared him off.

Thursday night, Obama called Boehner to ask where they stood. Boehner didn’t answer and so he left a message. Obama called again Friday morning and left another message. Boehner never responded to either one. There was no counter-offer of any kind, no attempt to clinch the deal. The only logical conclusion is that Boehner finally realized his own caucus was so implacably hostile to more revenue that they would never even support $800 billion, to say nothing of $1.2 trillion. Obama’s introduction of the larger figure handed Boehner a face-saving way out, and he took it. According to The Washington Post, Obama even called Boehner back two days later and told him he would take the original $800 billion deal, no questions asked. Boehner declined.

And yet, after all of this—the Republicans’ refusal to raise revenue, the Democrats’ acceptance of the deal’s outlines, Boehner’s final, unexplained disappearance—Woodward somehow concludes that Obama was mostly to blame for the deal’s demise. “[P]residents work their will—or should work their will—on the important matters of national business,” Woodward adjudges. “Obama”—unlike Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—“has not.”

How, exactly, did Obama fail to work his will? Two ways, says Woodward. First, he was so damned preoccupied with his own re-election that he couldn’t be bothered to act in the public interest. Second, he was so unschooled in the mystical ways of Washington that, on the rare occasion when he did want to do the right thing, he had no hope of achieving it.

The first charge is simply false—spectacularly so. There are many ways to deride a man who risked his presidency on health care reform, but overly concerned about public opinion isn’t one of them. (As Paul Ryan has eloquently put it, Obama gave us “a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for.”) Woodward complains that the White House was obsessed with waging a “permanent campaign.” “In the modern media age, it was important to act, get out there, be part of the daily conversation, shape the perception,” he observes. “No one tried harder at it than Obama.” But, if anything, this White House has been far less willing than its predecessors to import the tactics of the campaign into governing (unlike Woodward’s hero Bill Clinton, who is widely viewed as epitomizing the term “permanent campaign”). It didn’t even occur to Obama’s top aides to formulate a PR-plan for passing health care until they’d been bludgeoned for weeks by “death panel” accusations.

The most specific charge Woodward levels here has to do with the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling was the initial impetus for the 2011 negotiations, since Republicans demanded that any increase be paired with an offsetting amount of deficit-reduction. In response, Obama put forth his own demand: the debt-ceiling-increase had to be large enough to last through the 2012 presidential election. Woodward echoes the GOP allegation that this hurt the negotiations and was “purely political.” But why? Republicans freely admitted they were using the threat of default to impose brutal spending cuts. If Obama saw this as extortion, which he did, why would he want to repeat the exercise at the height of a campaign, when it would have been even harder to hold out against the ill-advised cuts? It was like a kidnapper offering to return your wife in exchange for your daughter, then accusing you of being selfish for rejecting the deal.

Woodward’s second charge may be literally true—Obama wasn’t exactly the smoothest Washington operator—but is otherwise nonsensical. The book goes to great lengths to show that Obama was uniquely inept at courting Congress. Of Dave Camp, the Republican Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Woodward writes: “He was one of the more politically moderate House Republicans. Yet the administration’s Hill staff didn’t even seem to know who he was. He never saw them.” Woodward goes on for pages about how the White House set back a potential deal by inviting Paul Ryan to a speech in which Obama criticized Ryan’s budget proposal. (The indignity!) In Woodward’s mind, the seriousness of this offense is second only to Obama’s reliance on modern communications technology to press Boehner for more revenue. “Most extraordinary was [Obama’s] repeated use of the telephone for critical exchanges,” he writes. “The result was a monumental communications lapse between the president and the speaker at a critical juncture.”

So, to review, the Republicans were theologically opposed to even the meagerest, mangiest revenue increases—even to the minimum amount of revenue Obama could have gotten without them, even in exchange for trillions of dollars in spending cuts—and yet Obama is somehow to blame for blowing up the deal because … why, exactly? Because he didn’t invite Boehner over for grilled cheese? (The mind boggles over the catastrophe that would have ensued had Obama texted Boehner via iPhone.) This reeks of the frozen-in-amber Sally Quinn lament that politicians don’t spend enough time bantering at Georgetown dinner parties, when in fact there are vast structural forces militating against collegial deal-making. Namely, that national politics has become intensely polarized over the last generation as the parties have sorted themselves along ideological lines. During that same time, the Republican Party has completely lost its marbles, having turned into a collection of anti-tax jidhadis bent on the upward redistribution of wealth. Sadly, the chances of solving that problem with a bit more schmoozing are exceedingly slim. 

The irony is that the only way to overcome these massive obstacles is by doing the opposite of what Woodward recommends—by searching for leverage over the other side and exploiting it. Woodward, like any good Georgetown denizen, is scandalized that Obama gave up on bipartisanship in September of 2011 to browbeat Republicans over more stimulus. “Instead of trying to work with Congress, he would attack,” Woodward huffs. “In speech after speech, he pushed for Congress to take up the bill, hammering particularly on the issue of the payroll tax cuts.” But, of course, all this attacking resulted in pretty much the only big legislative victory of Obama’s second two years. The Republicans crumpled. Obama signed a payroll extension worth over $100 billion in early 2012.

At this point any reasonable observer would conclude that more, not less, ruthlessness would have helped Obama work his will. Woodward doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he takes yet another opportunity to mourn the passing of the baronial style of congressional back-scratching. “Obama celebrated the bill’s passage on February 21 in the White House’s South Court Auditorium. Surrounded by individuals who would benefit from the payroll tax cut, but no members of Congress, he was the champion of the tax cuts,” Woodward writes. Then he quotes Obama: “With or without Congress, every day I’m going to be continuing to fight for them.” The quote is intended to be damning, of course—what species of cretin would stiff-arm Congress and then crow about it?

In truth, it is damning, except not in the way the author imagines. What’s damning is that the mythology of establishment Washington could exert such a powerful grip on its most famous chronicler. As it happens, “with or without Congress” was the most logical sentiment of Obama’s presidency. He could not be re-elected without it. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber.