February 28, 2013
 President Obama at a news conference
President Obama addresses reporters during a news conference. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

UPDATE 1:00 p.m.: A “threat” theme has exploded into the newstream today regarding the Woodward story. It relates to Woodward’s reaction to the e-mail from the White House official (Gene Sperling) warning Woodward that he’d “regret” writing what he’d written about the White House position on the sequester negotiation. Politico wrote that in an interview, Woodward had repeated the “regret” line, “making clear he saw it as a veiled threat.” Pressed moments ago on whether he’d ever used the term “threat” or “threatened” by the e-mail, Woodward responded, “No, I have not….I am uncomfortable because it is not the way to operate,” he said. When asked whether he felt there’d be payback on this front, Woodward declined to get into that matter.

Original: Reactions to Bob Woodward’s opinion piece from last weekend in The Post fall squarely into one of two categories. “For the people who love Obama, ‘This is wrong, you’ve corrupted yourself,’” Woodward notes to the Erik Wemple Blog. “For the people who don’t like Obama, who hate Obama, ‘You’re a hero, you’re the only journalist in America.’”

Welcome to Washington, Woodward! The bifurcated response is no surprise, of course, given that the fight over the sequester—the topic of that Woodward piece—drives at the country’s core partisan struggle. A set of deep cuts to defense and domestic spending is  set to take effect Friday, and just how to avert them—Tax hikes? Spending cuts? A mixture?—is roiling Democrats and Republicans.

The critique that has landed Woodward at the center of things snaps together at the very end of his piece:

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

Those words prompted NBC’s Chuck Todd to call Woodward a temporary “spokesperson for the Republicans.” Such a characterization appears to have stuck with Woodward, who made careful mention of it in our chat.

The counterargument of Todd, and of the White House, and of Ezra Klein, and of TPM’s Brian Beutler, and of Slate’s Dave Weigel, and of New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait—who together represent every left-leaning American—is goal post, goal schmost. There was never any doubt but that whatever agreement headed off the sequester was going to feature a mixture of deficit-reduction measures—new revenue plus spending cuts, that is. That’s what they say, anyhow.

The 69-year-old investigative reporter who received $25 per month in pay from the Washington Post isn’t abandoning his gridiron imagery. Obama “got what he needed,” says Woodward, referring to the raising of the debt ceiling. “So then the supercommittee failed, the sequester’s there, so now he wants more revenue. He should just get up and say, ‘We’re moving the goal posts, we averted the calamity of 2011, we won the election and I want more revenue.’” The way Woodward appears to see things, the supercommittee negotiations were the place where a deficit reduction was on the table; they broke down in November 2011. That leaves us with the sequester, to Woodward’s thinking, which was negotiated as a package of spending cuts, period.

The back-and-forth over yellow uprights contextualizes the dreaded e-mail that Woodward reports having received from a senior administration official, who has since been revealed as presidential economic adviser Gene Sperling. It followed a loud and contentious phone conversation. According to Woodward:

*The official wrote, “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today.”
*He went on to say, “I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall,” meaning, presumably, President Obama’s now widely disproven statement that the sequester was the idea of Congress.
*He wrote that “you [Woodward] focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.” When asked what “trees” referred to, Woodward quipped, “The facts, I guess.”
*He wrote that Woodward would “regret” staking his claim about the goal posts.

Of the entire transaction, Woodward acknowledges that the folks at the White House “don’t have to talk to anyone—they don’t have to answer anything.” It’s a reality that hits White House reporters time and again as, equipped with pressing questions, they gather for events only to watch the president high-tail it after the formalities wrap up. “There is a tendency to play—for them to play with somebody who’s going to give them a break, and I make it clear this is neutral…And for somebody in this position to say, ‘I think you will regret staking out this claim,’….”

Does that mean the White House won’t be allowing access for the next Bob Woodward book? “I don’t know. I think it’s not sound and mature communications policy,” he says.

The full text of the e-mail exchange has been leaked and is available at Politico. Word for word, it is loyal to Woodward’s recitation. But its tone is toothless. Sperling closes this way: “My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.” Woodward pings back: “Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them.”

So much for the White House “threatening” Woodward, as the Internet would have us believe. Nor does the you-will-regret-this language look like part of a communications policy on part of the White House. It looks like a reporter and a source disagreeing on some really tedious, really important policy points.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.