What Bob Woodward can tell us about President Obama and John Boehner

October 10, 2013

As President Obama huddles with House Speaker John Boehner and 17 other House Republicans in hopes of hashing out a deal on raising the debt ceiling and beginning talks about re-opening the government, it's worth revisiting what we know about how the two men negotiate (or don't).


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens as President Barack Obama speaks to media, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before a meeting with between the president and Congressional leaders to discuss the situation in Syria.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

While most people focus on the blowup of attempts at a grand bargain around the last debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011, the way that the two leaders interacted in the run-up to the fiscal cliff in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 election is an often overlooked window into how both men think and the cross-pressures they both faced (and face.)

Here's the final few paragraphs  of a lengthy Bob Woodward piece detailing how the fiscal cliff deal got done -- and what he concludes it tells us about the Obama-Boehner relationship:

Several times during the last round of budget negotiations, Obama and Boehner came close to a meaningful deal. But they would not compromise, perhaps split the difference. “We are $150 billion off, man,” Obama had said at one point, a number that was insignificant in the context of the federal budget over 10 years. “I don’t get it.”

What the president and the speaker did not get was that they had larger obligations than those to their parties or their doctrines. They did not get that a genuine deal would send multiple messages to the world, establishing some economic certainty, laying the conditions for a burst of economic growth and providing evidence, sorely lacking for years, that Democrats and Republicans could work together for the common good.

Now, as the fall budget battle looms, rather than talking, the White House and the Republicans are engaging in a caustic messaging war. There is no real blueprint for the necessary compromise, and there is insufficient framework or history to suggest how they might succeed in the next round, which is upon them.

Woodward's suggestion in the paragraphs above is that neither Obama nor Boehner were willing or able to step beyond their immediate circumstances to see the big picture, a political near-sightedness he feared would repeat itself in the shutdown and debt ceiling debates. Woodward also rightly foresaw the fact that the lack of any sort of foundational good will between the two men coupled with the lack of a clear picture of what compromise might look like would doom the country to another crisis the likes of which we are in the midst of.

The question(s): Can either (or both) men change the trajectory of that relationship?  And who bends first/most?

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | October 10, 2013