Making a Deal in D.C.

By Thomas J.P. Harrington

Fortunately, The Price of Politics is not a story told by an idiot, but instead a catalogue of idiotic mishaps, miscommunications and mistakes from both sides of the political aisle. Woodward’s newest DC tell-all swamped the nation’s discussions in the lead-up to the election. The tortuous and twisted story took outsiders deep into the insides of Washington, to where the sausage was made. Or in the case of the debt negotiations in 2010, not made. Yet, given that its strong condemnation of both Republican Speaker of the House Boehner and Democratic President Obama resulted in neither political figures’ unseating, does this tome still have any relevance?

Yes, yes it does. In fact, it may be one of the most significant books to be released in the past four years. Why? Because it actually manages to depict one of the most mysterious and convoluted political figures of our time in an odd, but honest way. I’m speaking of course, of our recently re-elected President.

In The Price of Politics, Woodward attempts to present the first four years of the Obama Administration and thus demonstrate how the debt ceiling fiasco was born, debated and finally lost. For both sides. In it, it becomes clear that President Obama has been anything but consistent or constant. Rather, his character appears to vacillate and change with the environment surrounding him. As a result, I’ve tried to divide Woodward’s narrative into the three stages that the Obama Administration travelled through from 2008 to 2012.


Part I: The Candidate Triumphant

Woodward’s book begins with his first introduction to then-Senator Barack Obama at the Gridiron dinner. He was dazzled by Obama’s charm, his elegance and his articulation. But, Woodward tempers his praise and the ebullience surrounding Obama’s self-deprecating, but insubstantial palaver with a comparison to another Senator’s speech. In one brilliant passage, Woodward manages to present the difference between the charming future President Obama and the serious Senator Moynihan.

Moynihan, then 53, made some good jokes, but his theme was serious: what it means to be a Democrat. The soul of the party was to fight for equality and the little guy, he said. The party cared for the underdogs in America, the voiceless, powerless and those who got stepped on. It was a defining speech, and the buzz afterward was that Moynihan was going to be president. He wasn’t, of course. That was then, this was now. Obama had not once mentioned the party or high purpose. His speech, instead, was about Obama, his inexperience, and, in the full paradox of the moment, what he had not done. Two and a half years later, he was president-elect of the United States. 

After that far-from-complimentary introduction to the President, Woodward skips ahead to the halcyon days of the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2009. Well, halcyon at least for President Obama and the Democrats. Not so much for the rest of the country – and even the world. The stock market was collapsing, Europe was feeling the first tremors of what would become a years-long debacle, and of course nearly everyone was running around like a headless chicken. But the charming, articulate and self-deprecatory candidate was now President. At least Bush was gone, everyone reassured themselves. The real question was, however, how would Obama govern?

The answer lay in one of the first meetings between the newly elected President and the congressional leaders of both parties. At the first meeting, Obama had touted his willingness to compromise and find a bipartisan path. As a result, then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor went to the drawing board with conservative members of the Republican caucus to write up a set of principles regarding the upcoming stimulus. President Obama glanced at the document and then after a brief sentence or two of trite bipartisan pablum, he laid down the law. “I can go it alone…Look at the polls. The polls are pretty good for me right now. Elections have consequences, and Eric, I won. So on that, I think I trump you.” A few months later as the debate over the stimulus bill raged, it became clear that bipartisanship was off the table. As Republicans attempted to alter the Democratic bill, Emanuel responded: “We have the votes. [Expletive deleted] ‘em.” And so began the first two years of the Obama Administration.


Part II: The Not-So-Great Negotiator

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Mr. Emanuel turned out to be quite wrong indeed. After the debacle of the 2010 midterm elections where the GOP took back the House (thanks to a 9 point swing in the vote) and gained six seats in the Senate, President Obama just didn’t have the votes anymore. Pivoting, Obama began his attempts to charm his political opposition, but it was an empty and obviously calculated gesture. The President called the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, on his birthday to wish him well – and then dropped an invitation to a major summit with every congressional leader the next day. Insulted by the extremely late notice for a meeting that couldn’t fit into his already-packed schedule, Boehner had to refuse the offer along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. This miniscule miscommunication resulting in a political misfire may seem silly and unusual, but sadly it was only the first of many such occasions throughout the debt ceiling negotiations. 

As the countdown began, Obama deployed former Senator (and renowned smooth talker) Joe Biden to discuss the issues and identify spending cuts with a bevy of congressional leaders including the new House Majority Whip Cantor. The divide between the two parties quickly grew. Not only did the Republicans want spending cuts, but they needed entitlement cuts. Meanwhile, Democrats wanted to protect their beloved entitlement programs while cutting defense programs and raising more revenue. The Bush tax cuts for the top two percent were a favorite target of the left while the right pointed at the waste and growth in Medicare, food stamps and Medicaid.

Biden attempted to find common ground, to find those cuts that could be made. But these efforts were stymied by disagreement on both sides. Repeatedly, everyone made comparisons to the budget deals of Gingrich, Clinton, O’Neill and Reagan. But no one was ready to make the first leap. Not while the negotiations were still on. Democrats became frustrated with Biden’s continual attempts to compromise…but never with an end goal in sight. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat stalwart who later would be appointed to the bipartisan Supercommittee designed to force Congress to make cuts, quickly grew frustrated with the White House. Woodward notes: “A growing feeling of incredulity came over Van Hollen. The administration didn’t seem to have a strategy. It was unbelievable. There didn’t seem to be any core principles.” As always, the White House remained a mystery.

Divisions were not an exclusively Democratic problem. Woodward depicts the struggle between the newly elected Tea Party caucus and the Republican moderates. Boehner knew that he was walking a tightrope, balancing the different sides of his caucus. Tensions grew as Cantor became the new spokesman for the hard-line conservatives and rumors spread that he was seeking Boehner’s position. All of this division, distrust and turmoil loomed beneath the surface of the negotiations. Unfortunately, it took the White House to exacerbate the situation until it exploded. 

As those negotiations festered, President Obama unwittingly contributed to their demise by opening a secret backdoor set of negotiations with Speaker of the House Boehner. Unfortunately, Biden revealed the existence of the talks to Cantor in one of his patented gaffes. Fearing a political coup or a double cross by the White House, the Democrats, or even his own party, Cantor exited the stagnating talks. Now, all of the nation’s hopes landed squarely on the shoulders of Boehner and Obama.

The problem was that the big deal was just out of their reach. After their aides had spent months squabbling over minor details, the President and the Speaker had still not managed to nail down the major sticking points. Entitlements and revenue…it all came down to that. For months, the two leaders had left the basic framework up to their minions, but it had failed. They had to make the final decisions. But then, at the last moment, President Obama called Boehner and asked for more tax revenue. $400 billion more – not exactly chump change.

That was 50% higher than Boehner’s final offer, his so-called ceiling. And although three moderate GOP Senators had recently come out in favor of a similar revenue deal, Boehner knew that would never pass the House. So, the talks fell apart as Boehner switched to negotiations with the congressional Democrats. The President was furious. And his anger began the third phase in the White House.


Part III: The Campaigner-in-Chief

Out went old good Bill Daley and in came Jack Lew, former head of Office of Management and Budget. The Republicans had hated Lew. He was a hard-line negotiator and even worse, obnoxiously arrogant and combative. Was it any surprise how the President suddenly changed to the Campaigner-in-Chief?

Bipartisanship was out the window. Now, it was all about getting back the votes, getting the American people to hate Republicans. Why? Negotiating was clearly not President Obama’s strong point, so it was time to try a different tactic. Thus, out of the ashes of the debt ceiling negotiations, there rose the Obama re-election campaign platform. Simply put, it was anti-Congress and virulently anti-Republican.

The President took to using the upcoming expiration of the payroll tax cut as a bludgeon. Repeatedly, he damned the Republicans in the House and Senate while pronouncing, “Pass this bill.” Cantor, to his credit, saw the maelstrom approaching and urged the leadership to pass the bill and stop the pain. Unfortunately, they weren’t swift enough. As Congressional approval ratings plummeted, Obama surrounded himself with working men and women, embracing Main Street. How odd that Jack Lew, a former Citigroup executive who had short-sold during the housing collapse, would bring this profoundly populist message to the Obama Administration.

At the end of the day, Woodward’s book is just that: a collection of odd stories surrounding the mercurial man in the Oval Office. But this tome is less the story of a President, than it is of his handlers. It seems that President Obama changes to match his environment rather than the other way around. When Rahm Emanuel was Chief-of-Staff, the White House was a steamroller. The opposition either got out of the way or found themselves as thin as pancakes. After the 2010 elections and the departure of the foul-mouthed and short-tempered Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers, President Obama transitioned into a calm, technocratic negotiator. Not too dissimilar from good-old-boy William Daley, the recently arrived Chief of Staff.

Except Obama just isn’t that person. He just couldn’t seal the deal. So he transitioned to a full-scale broadside against the Republicans for 18 months in order to ensure his re-election. He intentionally fought tooth-and-nail to crush the opponent – tossing any hope of negotiation or bipartisanship to the wind. But now, we have a second term to look forward to. This time, though, President Obama has even fewer friends in Washington.

Going forward, the worrying thought is who will Barack Obama be for the next four years? Unfortunately, Woodward leaves the reader with no answers, only more questions. In that, his terse prose reflects the reality of our current situation. Still looming overhead, just as it did four years ago is the ultimate question: who did we just elect President? The campaigner, the negotiator, or the candidate?