Bob Woodward’s depressing and often tedious new book, “The Price of Politics,” reads like a minutely detailed illustration of these woes. It focuses on “the struggle between President Obama and the United States Congress to manage federal spending and tax policy for the three and one-half years between 2009 and the summer of 2012.” And the bulk of its narrative is devoted to behind-the-scenes negotiations that took place in the summer of 2011, as the country teetered on the brink of a potentially catastrophic default over the federal debt ceiling.
Much of this story has already been told in lengthy articles in The New York Times Magazine by Matt Bai and in The Washington Post by Peter Wallsten, Lori Montgomery and Scott Wilson. “The Price of Politics” adds some colorful new details to earlier accounts and examines the aftermath of the failure of the president and Speaker John A. Boehner to reach a “grand bargain” in July 2011 involving cutting the deficit, rewriting the tax code and rolling back the cost of entitlements. It also describes tensions between the White House and Capitol Hill, between the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats and between Mr. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader.
Beyond the most hard-core fiscal policy wonks, however, it’s difficult to imagine anyone outside the Beltway being interested in this volume’s granular telling and retelling of these matters, its almost blow-by-blow chronicle of the maneuvering, haggling, grandstanding and ideological positioning that have taken root on both sides of the aisle.
Most of “The Price of Politics” sticks like Velcro to its narrow focus on the debt-ceiling negotiations, declining really to grapple with broader questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis it inherited after the 2008 crash: the perceived successes and failures of its stimulus program; the infighting among members of its economic team; its much debated stewardship of the banking crisis and Wall Street reform; and its continuing struggles with unemployment and an underwater housing market. For these issues, the reader is better off turning to books like “The Escape Artists” by Noam Scheiber, “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind, or Michael Hirsh’s “Capital Offense.”
Like Mr. Woodward’s earlier books, “The Price of Politics” is based on lots of insider interviews, conducted mostly on background — meaning, Mr. Woodward writes, “the information could be used in the book but none of the sources would be identified by name” — along with supporting documents, meeting notes, e-mails and diaries. As a result, the narrative tends to reflect the spin of people who talked the most — or the most persuasively — with Mr. Woodward: in this case, it would seem, Republican and Democratic Congressional officials, and some administration insiders.
Large swaths of this book concern the depressing blame game the administration and Congressional Republicans waged against each other after talks between President Obama and Mr. Boehner about the grand bargain abruptly collapsed. What caused that collapse? Depends which side you believe.
Republicans have argued that the White House, nervous about how Congressional Democrats and the party’s base would react, “moved the goal posts” at the last minute, requesting an additional $400 billion on the revenue side.
Democrats have suggested that Mr. Boehner walked away because he could not rally Republican support for the deal. Within the White House, Mr. Woodward writes, many of those involved in the negotiations argued that Mr. Boehner “did not come close to steering his own ship”: “Instead of being a visionary trying to make a grand bargain, Boehner had, almost all alone, crawled out on a limb and watched as Eric Cantor and the Tea Party sawed it off.”
Mr. Woodward provides a dramatic account of the angry phone call in which Mr. Boehner told Mr. Obama that the deal was off. Mr. Woodward writes that Rob Nabors, a White House official, remembers the usually cool president gripping the phone so tightly that it looked as if it might break, displaying what Mr. Woodward calls “a flash of pure fury.”
Mr. Boehner tells Mr. Woodward, “He was spewing coals.” This is what Mr. Boehner said he told the president: “I’d put revenue on there if we had real changes in entitlement programs. Every time we get there, you and I agree; all of a sudden you guys keep backing up, backing up, backing up. And now you call me and you want more revenue. It ain’t going to happen. I’m done with it.”