If you haven’t had the chance to read Bob Woodward’s new book The Price of Politics, put it at the top of your things-to-do-before-November list. This fascinating, revealing portrait details how deals do—and don't—get done in the Obama administration.
The book focuses squarely on the negotiations preceding the 2011 debt ceiling legislation. The cast of characters includes President Barack Obama, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leaders Eric Cantor and Harry Reid, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden.
I’ll be frank: Woodward does no favors for President Obama and his team of White House staffers. In fact, the book is a perfect testament as to why electing someone to the presidency who has no prior management experience is a major mistake.
Obama has made a habit of blaming Congressional gridlock as the reason he can’t get anything done. And although there is plenty of truth in that, the Obama administration set the tone early in his administration with (ironically enough) astoundingly poor communication skills, zero understanding of how to build relationships within Congress, broken promises and arrogance.
Take a mental journey back to winter 2008. The Republicans were persona non grata on the Hill. Obama got handed a big plate of mess: a terrible recession, exploding debt and two expensive foreign wars. Pundits wondered if the Republicans were becoming a regional party instead of a national force.
Nevertheless, Obama reached out to the downtrodden conservatives to ask for help crafting a bipartisan stimulus plan (remember that?). Boehner and Cantor took to the task enthusiastically and presented a "serious proposal," according to Obama.
Of course, he promptly ignored it, despite promising explicitly to include Republicans on the deal. Instead, according to Woodward, the administration presented a “Democratic spending wish list” that even members of his own party hated.
When members of both parties complained, Rahm “Potty Mouth” Emanuel said, “f*** ‘em, we have the votes.”
And that’s just the beginning.
Following the passage of the stimulus plan, the White House failed to build relationships on the Hill—even within the Democratic Party. Past administrations relied heavily on these relationships, because building these bridges ensured that a sitting president could exert his will by leveraging them to facilitate passage of important legislation.
There has been no such outreach from the Obama White House and very little Congressional understanding as to who’s really in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; Reid and Pelosi often expressed frustration at the President’s lack of understanding of how business gets done in Washington.
And, as Woodward points out, this lack of outreach burned Obama when he attempted to make friends at the worst possible time, after the Republicans came roaring back in 2010.
In my view, the unsung hero in the Obama administration is unquestionably Vice President Biden. A top negotiator who Woodward reports enjoys a trusting, productive working relationship with Republicans, he worked tirelessly during the 2011 debt crisis to build legislation that incorporates the “some for you, some for me” ethos of deal making.
Naturally, Obama does not seem to appreciate this skill, and here’s where it gets really ugly.
Biden put together a bipartisan committee led by himself and Virginia Republican Eric Cantor. The Biden and Cantor working group met for several weeks and built the foundation of a solid plan.
Cantor warned the group again and again that he could not secure votes from the newly-elected Tea Party faithful if the legislation included any increase in taxes. He observed that these neophytes truly did not understand the seriousness of the debt crisis; some Tea Party members even suggested that a U.S. default might be good for the country(!).
These new members, Cantor said, believed in an “existential” sense that government must cut entitlement spending. And because experienced legislators know that writing law is, in the end, really all about the votes, Cantor refused to accept a deal that he knew had no chance of passing the House.
Nevertheless, the committee continued working and making slow-but-steady progress. But instead of letting the process run its course, Obama secretly reached out to Boehner to negotiate separately. Boehner, foolishly, agreed. Cantor later discovered the end-run and told Biden he could no longer participate in the committee.
Biden not only understood, he agreed.
Once the White House became involved, classic, gut-wrenching gridlock ensued. Exciting highlights include endless fruitless negotiations, a scary threat made by Obama not to release Social Security checks, Republican walkouts following Obama’s last-minute demands for more revenue and fewer spending cuts, and an insistence that any deal must kick the can down the road until (wait for it) after the 2012 election.
Yet what should concern voters most are two interesting facts.
The first is the Obama administration’s failure to come up with a Plan B in the final days before default. Doesn’t management 101 teach us to always, always, always have an alternative? Even a Reid staffer upbraided Obama in the oval office for his failure to contingency plan.
The second is a very telling statement that the President made before the deal was complete:
“’The one thing I said I actually needed,’ the president noted, ‘they didn’t get. I needed this to go past the election, and they didn’t get it for me. This can’t work.’”
No, Mr. President. The one thing you “actually needed” was to avoid an economic disaster, not attempt to guarantee a second term.
The two sides eventually worked out a deal, of course. And as we know, the deal includes us falling off a fiscal cliff in 2013. But hey, what does that matter? It’s past the election.