Unfortunately for the president and the legion of media spinners who insist on portraying the Republicans as the sole problem in reaching a debt reduction deal, Bob Woodward in “The Price of Politics” pretty much points the finger at President Obama. Along the way, to the surprise of some conservatives, he paints a picture of a rather amiable and flexible speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio) and a dogged Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who, he notes, had been laboring for years on real budget reform and put together the first budget to tackle our entitlement programs.
In Chapters 10 and 11 Woodward gives the ticktock in Obama’s response to Ryan’s 2011 budget that included real Medicare reform. Obama is portrayed as peevish. Rather than wait, for example for the Gang of Six, Woodward reports: “ ‘We’re not waiting,’ the president said in exasperation. He wanted to rip into Ryan’s plan.” So much for trying to reach out to the other side.
Woodward also details Obama’s now-infamous speech on April 13, 2010 at George Washington University, in which — with Ryan sitting in the first row — the president launched into a nasty partisan, assault. The president seems to think that the mistake was inviting Ryan. Well, would it have been better had Obama spoken behind Ryan’s back? The problem, of course, was not that Ryan was present but that the president’s soothing words previously extended to Ryan that sounded like offers of cooperation were soon revealed to be a smokescreen. This was a president who wanted to destroy the opposition. What possible deal could come from this?
Woodward quotes the co-chairman of the debt commission, former Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, telling Ryan after the president’s broadside: “I’m going to go throw up in the tulips.” (No one ever said that Simpson lacked a way with words.) What was Ryan to do? Woodward tells us, “Ryan’s worst suspicions about the president were realized.” In short, Obama was unmasked as a hyperpartisan who didn’t know how to get along with opponents and believed in the class warfare rhetoric that Senate and House leaders liked to spew. And it hardly mattered whether Ryan was there; the substance, not the attendance, poisoned the well.
What Woodward describes is a set of players in which nearly everyone, from Boehner to Ryan to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), worked more diligently and sincerely than the president to get a deal. Vice President Biden was in the trenches. Ryan had managed to get entitlements on the table in the first place, something no Republican or Democrat had the nerve to do. But Obama? Hot-button rhetoric and rudeness were his contributions.
Now the Obama campaign and some of the less diligent (or fair) members of the press have a narrative, and by gosh they aren’t giving it up for anything. But it was Ryan who years before came up with the Roadmap for America. It was Ryan who worked up a plan for budget reform with former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alice Rivlin and Ryan who pushed the House to pass a meaningful budget. When the debt commission insisted on reaffirming Obamacare (a complete nonstarter for Republicans), Ryan couldn’t support it, but he continued to push forward reforms, for example, working across the aisle when he could find a willing partner (e.g., Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)). In fact the Medicare reform plan he doggedly pursued ( a premium support plan) was once upon a time a Democratic plan.
Nevertheless, a House budget chairman no matter how wonkish and energetic can’t pass major entitlement reform on his own. Had the president been as determined and courageous as Ryan, had he not dashed the grand bargain by upping the ante, had he not taken out a bazooka to blast Ryan or had he worked with the Gang of Six we’d have a different economy and a different fiscal future. To get that, it seems, we’ll need a different president.