Bob Woodward has been telling on presidents since he and Carl Bernstein teamed up to reveal the Watergate misdeeds of President Richard Nixon in the mid-1970s, and he's at it again. This time, it's President Barack Obama who is feeling the sting, not because of criminal acts, but because of ineptness, arrogance and other attributes that in combination spell peril for America.
The Washington Post associate editor may not put it quite that way in his new book, The Price of Politics. But when you've finished reading a published excerpt and summaries, you can either indulge in liberal sympathy, saying the poor president has had the misfortune of having to deal with human beings more ordinary than he is, or you can face the truth: He's in over his head.
Woodward, while hardly purring about Republicans, has talked in an interview about Obama's "gaps" and writes that he did not take charge in tough times the way presidents usually do. Mostly, however, in the material I read, Woodward leaves such judgments to the people he interviews and to readers who can come to their own conclusions by following the story line.
It's discouraging stuff. Obama miscalculated, and badly, in negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner on getting Republicans to allow more borrowing and avert default by convincing them something significant would be done about a wildly growing, ruinous debt. Despite Republican travails about stiff tax hikes to help fix the mess, Boehner was willing to go along with an $800 billion revenue increase achieved through reform. The grand compromise was about done when Obama asked for another $400 billion. That was it. Finis. End of the game.
How bad a negotiator do you have to be to not get it that when you have a bird in hand you forget the two in the bush? After the fact, Obama said the $400 billion was just a suggestion and fumed that Boehner stayed away from the phone for a day before he unleashed his fury on the speaker. Angrily blaming others for your own mistakes strikes me as the kind of pomposity that makes things worse.
The president was outraged again when Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, seeing the White House as a roadblock, swerved around it to negotiate their own deal. Dismissing the effort and later threatening a veto, Obama earned himself a rebuke from an aide to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This man, David Krone, found it a major lapse that the White House had no fallback plan when its initial bartering went astray.
Among others casting doubt on Obama as negotiator were Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and presidential financial adviser who said Obama just did not like the game, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, who accused the White House of having no strategy or "core principles." There's hearsay in the book that Vice President Joseph Biden, who himself seemed pretty able at reaching understandings with recalcitrant Republicans, said he would approach the negotiating "totally different" if it were up to him.
All of this matters, and it matters powerfully. We are facing a major fiscal crisis at the turn of the year if Congress does not act to keep Bush-era tax cuts in place while stopping immediate and drastic budget cuts. The latest unemployment figures show that even more frustrated people are dropping out of the job market. Middle-class incomes have fallen by thousands of dollars. And, among a host of other scary issues, we face a debt sure to deliver calamity in the absence of significant long-term cuts.
None of what is needed is likely to be achieved without a national leader who actually leads, which entails effective negotiating. We need to look elsewhere than Obama, and no, I do not mean we therefore hope he puts Biden in charge.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)