‘The Price of Politics,’ by Bob Woodward


By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster, 428 pp, $30

The front cover of Bob Woodward's book "The Price Of Politics." (Nathaniel Grann)

On the night of Nov. 6, the winner of the 2012 presidential election will deliver his victory speech from the edge of an abyss: the “fiscal cliff,” our national Niagara, over which he and the rest of us will plunge in January if our leaders fail to avert a set of automatic spending cuts and tax increases. Bob Woodward’s latest book, “The Price of Politics,” explains how we got this close to the brink. The fiscal cliff, as Woodward reminds us, is the Son of the Debt-Ceiling Debacle, an abomination born of the extended, fevered and largely fruitless negotiations between the Obama White House and congressional leaders during the summer of 2011.

The publication of this book, Woodward’s 17th, has been preceded by the usual fanfare: a press embargo, a flagrant disregard for the press embargo, and a race to identify the book’s biggest revelations and “juiciest bits.” It is safe to say that outside the Republican presidential primary debates, no discussion of entitlement spending cuts has ever generated this level of excitement. It is heightened, no doubt, by the approach of the election — and by the fervent hope on the right that something, anything, in Woodward’s book might serve, in the words of one columnist, as “alarming news” for Democrats and a “political gift” for Republicans.

By that standard, “The Price of Politics” falls short, but Woodward surely has nobler aims. The book is a highly detailed dissection of the debt-limit negotiations and how the hope of a “grand bargain” to reform the tax code and reduce runaway entitlement spending — a shared ambition of President Obama and Speaker John Boehner — ended, as so many hopes do in Washington, in recriminations and retrenchment.

If this is not quite instant history, it is certainly recent history, and painfully fresh. For all the apparent speed with which Woodward did his work, the contours and even many of the crucial details of the story have already appeared beneath other bylines. Most notably, last spring, New York Times reporter Matt Bai dedicated nearly 10,000 words to the subject. Of course Woodward, being Woodward, digs deeper, and draws more out of the protagonists than anyone else has. A full 40 years after Woodward’s emergence, it has become commonplace to cite (or, if you are a journalist, to envy) his ability to get virtually everyone to talk about everything, but it is still a remarkable achievement. “The Price of Politics” is enlivened, in the Woodward way, by reciting the profane haiku of Rahm Emanuel’s e-mails, retracing every awkward step in the pas de deux between Obama and Boehner, and recounting the private torment of Rep. Eric Cantor (thus exposing him, improbably, as a man capable of doubt and regret, excommunicable offenses in the House Republican caucus).

The prurient reader is thusly rewarded. As the negotiations grind on, the indignities mount for the key participants. Boehner screens Obama’s calls and shuns his requests to come back to the White House for yet another meeting. Obama is left to complain — publicly — that “I’ve been left at the altar.” A Democratic Senate aide dresses the president down in the Oval Office: “It is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B.” When the speaker tries to corral votes for his own Plan B, several House Republicans walk out of his office; two of them tell reporters they’re on their way to the chapel to pray for their leaders. And throughout the talks, Boehner and Cantor undercut each other, their animosity so obvious that a White House staffer “felt awkward being in the same room with the two of them.” Clearly, for career politicians, there are humiliations greater than kissing babies and supporting ethanol subsidies.

In the aggregate, details like these add color (often a sickly, pallid hue) to a familiar picture and provide moments of real clarity — about the character of our leaders, the dynamics of power between the branches of government, and the mechanics, step by step, of high-stakes sausage-making. Still, much of “The Price of Politics” reads like a transcript of an interminable meeting, a literary equivalent of C-SPAN3.

“Let me do some rough math here,” Obama says in a typical passage. “If you take the health care mandatories that don’t fall on the beneficiary, with the possible exception of means testing — which Pelosi and Reid have said they will oppose — plus other mandatory, plus discretionary, you’re at $1.4 to $1.5 trillion.”

If the hallmark of a Bob Woodward book is that it puts you in the room, you may well, before long, start clawing for the exits.

One of the liabilities of this approach is that it can obscure as much as it illuminates. The book is a movie shot entirely in close-up. Regrettably, Woodward’s lack of concern for, or perhaps his impatience with, context and analysis limits his scope; this book offers nothing like the richness or the sweeping authority of “The Agenda,” Woodward’s 1994 book on the Clinton economic plan. To get the most out of “The Price of Politics,” it therefore helps to do some supplemental reading, not only Bai’s piece but Noam Scheiber’s “The Escape Artists,” which describes how Obama, in 2010, caught debt-deal fever — how his own, genuine interest in debt reduction was reinforced by the results of that year’s elections, which returned the House, and the political momentum, to the GOP.

Woodward’s in-the-room, in-the-moment methodology tends to slight the larger story he has to tell, which is too bad; it is an important one. The mystery of who blew the grand bargain — Obama says Boehner did it, by caving in to his caucus; Boehner blames Obama, for insisting on more tax revenue — matters less than what the whole abasing episode tells us about the state of self-government in the United States. To the extent that Woodward broaches this, he does it through the prism of personality. In the book’s final few pages, he places a pox on both houses, Obama’s and Boehner’s, for failing to “transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.” He chides Boehner for failing to win the loyalty or respect of House Republicans or even just to rein in his first lieutenant. “He could have called Eric Cantor in and had the conversation of a lifetime,” pressing the majority leader to fall in line, Woodward suggests.

But Woodward reserves his most damning indictment for Obama, whom he sees as well meaning but often stumbling, and cocky and remote — a cold fish with a high hand who needlessly alienates potential “friends.” Woodward recounts that in early 2009, after every last House Republican voted against the administration’s stimulus package, Cantor told Emanuel that “you really could have gotten some of our support”— if it weren’t for the president’s “arrogance.”Woodward seems to take this claim at face value, along with similarly self-serving statements by Rep. Paul Ryan and others. They inform Woodward’s final, blistering judgment. Yes, he acknowledges, Obama inherited a “faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. But presidents,” he says, “work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business.” Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton largely did, he concludes. “Obama has not.”

It is hard to argue with this, but it is important to understand why. Obama, to be sure, has made missteps and misjudgments. He has placed too much trust in the power of reason and too little value on the power of personal relationships. He has often succeeded despite all that. But his failure to consistently work his will on Congress surely has less to do with his individual failings, as Woodward suggests, than with larger forces, chief among them the radicalization of the GOP — a party that actually seems to believe its depiction of a moderate, pragmatic president as some kind of wild-eyed collectivist, a party whose members, in their loathing for government, were willing to risk, in some cases to welcome, the economic armageddon of a debt default as an opportunity, a catharsis, a shock to the body politic. In Woodward’s book, “the caucus” and the tea party are little more than bit players, but for Obama — and no less for Boehner — their rigidity is the central, unalterable fact of political life. The manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling was their proud creation, and their zealotry has extended it right to the edge of the cliff. Congress is one thing — how does a man work his will on a crusade?

Shesol, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is a partner at West Wing Writers and author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”