In “The Price of Politics,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward sets as his goal an examination of how President Obama and congressional Republicans failed in a bid to craft a comprehensive plan to control the US deficit and put the economy on a more stable course.
The book aims to cover the 3½-year period from just before Obama’s 2009 inauguration through the middle of last year, but the centerpiece — and the lion’s share of Woodward's reportage — follows last summer’s rancorous, 11th-hour face-off over raising the federal debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default.
As he has done in his prior 16 books, Woodward displays his impressive access to our nation’s most powerful leaders, interviewing all the key players in the drama.
Reading about all these closed-door meetings, tension-filled phone calls, and media posturing as the nation careened toward a potential economic car wreck cannot help but discourage even the most optimistic among us about the future of US bipartisanship.
To refresh your memory: Republicans led by House Speaker John Boehner viewed a routine vote on raising the federal debt ceiling as an opportunity to force Obama and Democratic lawmakers to accept their priorities on the major challenges facing the US economy: deficit reduction; entitlements, like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; and tax policy. The two sides entered talks. With the nation nearing default, negotiators reached a face-saving deal to raise the debt ceiling, but Obama and Boehner failed to reach a “grand bargain” on the economy.
While it was taking place, and in its aftermath, this very political, very public battle received heavy media coverage so Woodward breaks little new ground here. But he does manage to sneak readers behind closed doors.
His account relates that Obama, negotiating one-on-one with Boehner, displayed surprising flexibility in giving in to Republican demands for spending cuts to entitlements, while Republicans refused to consider tax increases for those making over $250,000.
Woodward notes that Vice President Biden flared over GOP inflexibility on taxes: “You don’t get to have a one-sided deal just because your side is more unreasonable than ours.”
While Woodward clearly portrays the Republicans as intransigent, he faults Obama for a failure of leadership, proving himself unable to work his will as Presidents Reagan and Clinton did, on “important matters of national business.’’
Obama ultimately allowed Republicans to offer not “tax increases” but “tax reform.” What “tax reform” exactly meant, other than closing some loopholes in the tax code, is never apparent from Woodward’s text, but it was intended to give Boehner and congressional Republicans political cover in selling a deal to their intransigent Tea Party caucus. Obama warns Boehner that the accord must appear to be “a jump ball for both of us . . . I won’t spike the ball . . . I won’t dance in the end zone.”
Eventually, Boehner simply stops returning Obama’s phone calls and summarily pulls out of negotiations. Instead, Boehner tries unsuccessfully to cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“The Price of Politics” is a pleasure palace for inside-the-Beltway budget and taxation wonks, but for everyone else, it can be something of a sausage-making snoozefest. Here’s Woodward summarizing one failed meeting: “They were close on the cuts to the non-Defense, nonsecurity and nonentitlement spending. They hadn’t settled on the final discretionary number, on language for entitlement reform, or the all-important trigger.”
In the end, little of the budget mess was resolved, which means we’ll be revisiting the whole thing after the November election. If the contentious past offers any hint of the future, Woodward seems to hold out little hope for a constructive resolution: “neither [Obama nor Boehner] was able to transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.”
Politically, it looks like next year is going to be another long one.Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@