Bob Woodward's budget bust: Why 'The Price of Politics' is much ado about nothing

Walter Shapiro

The abortive $4 trillion 2011 budget deal between Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner is fast becoming the most well-chronicled non-event since the lost continent of Atlantis disappeared beneath the waves.

With both the Obama White House and House Republicans leaking like rotted rowboats, we have already been treated to lengthy reconstructions of the secret negotiations in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Now, the inexhaustible Bob Woodward, the preeminent brand name for inside-the-White-House reporting, offers his version of the failed talks in the just published, “The Price of Politics.”

Despite Woodward’s title, politics that involve voters and elections play no role in his tale of the backstairs budget negotiations conducted against the backdrop of the debt-ceiling crisis. Even tea party zealots among the House Republican freshmen—fledgling legislators willing to risk a U.S. default on its debts—remain offstage. “The Price of Politics” is akin to a military history all about the battle plans of the generals with nary a whiff of real soldiers.

The problem with Woodward’s fixation on the Oval Office and the GOP congressional leadership is it leads to a lack of journalistic skepticism about the lasting importance of the story he’s telling. The failed 2011 budget negotiations will never be an epic historical marker like the Punic Wars. They represented a burst of heroic posturing by Obama, Boehner and other major figures. But in the end, especially in Woodward’s plodding account, they were just the stuff that schemes—and not dreams—are made of.

A few key players, like Obama’s then-top economic adviser Larry Summers, understood this. Early in the narrative, Woodward paraphrased Summers as arguing that “the budget exercise on future deficits [was] pointless. There might be political benefits to proposing deficit reduction for years such as 2015, but Congress could easily unwind the cuts.”

Summers, who left the White House at the end of 2010, was right, of course. At one point, for instance, Obama and Boehner were at loggerheads over what year the age to qualify for Medicare would begin to slowly increase from 65 to 67. Boehner said the lengthy process should start in 2017, but Obama insisted on 2022. Of course, Obama and quite possibly Boehner will have retired by then.

What no one—including Woodward—seemed to grasp is that this was an abstraction, a Potemkin village of budgeting. This mythical timetable would inevitably change once the Democrats or the Republicans won a governing majority in Congress.

On fiscal issues, Washington is permanently divided into two camps: those who understand the numbers and those hoodwinked by them. Three-card monte budgeting is a game favored by knowledgeable Democrats and Republicans. Woodward recounts an incident in which Gene Sperling, Summers’ successor in the White House, suggested keeping the flashy budgetary target at $4 trillion in savings, but extending the time span covered from 10 to 12 years. Sperling cynically argued, according to Woodward’s summary, “No one would really notice. Few would do the math. By stretching the plan out ... the early cuts would be substantially smaller.”

That’s every politician’s budgetary fantasy—minimal pain before the next election, but maximal credit in the media for making hard, statesmanlike decisions.

Moreover, the stagnant state of the economy argues for delaying all major cuts until the recovery begins in earnest. Sure, there’s alarmist talk about the government going over the “fiscal cliff” at the end of this year, when the Bush tax cuts expire and Congress is supposed to automatically slash the federal budget by $120 billion. But now for the reality check: There’s no deadline in the world that Congress in its infinite wisdom can’t and won’t postpone.

For all of Woodward’s high-level access (including a lengthy but non-revealing on-the-record interview with the president), missing from “The Price of Politics” are any fresh anecdotes that cause us to rethink our perceptions of Obama. In fact, missing from the over-hyped book is surprising insight about anything. Woodward’s skill has never been interpretation, but rather a relentless interview style that has allowed him to practice in-the-room stenography. The problem is that this time around the thought processes of the key players do not extend much beyond banalities, like this one about Obama’s top political aide: “[David] Plouffe saw Boehner’s pullout as an immediate political problem.”

The one memorable portrait in “The Price of Politics” comes courtesy of Boehner. In the midst of an Oval Office negotiating session with Obama on a brutally hot day in the summer of 2011, Boehner, writes Woodward, desperately craves a cigarette. Since the White House is a no-smoking zone, Boehner suggests that they move outside to the patio. As the House speaker later told Woodward, “All you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking Merlot, and I look across the table and here is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette.”

Woodward’s reporting does little to erase the image of Obama as a negotiator fond of compromising with himself. After the president reversed field in late 2010 and agreed to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two years—including those for the wealthy—Obama told dispirited congressional Democrats, “I’m drawing a line in the sand after this.”

Obama’s line drawing always seems to be a show of moxie destined for the indefinite future. During the summer of 2011, Obama again enraged House liberals like Nancy Pelosi by unilaterally offering Boehner cuts in Medicare benefits and Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.

The dominant worldview in “The Price of Politics” is the good-government obsession in Washington for a grand budgetary bargain under which liberals and conservatives split their differences over taxes and spending to return America to the path of fiscal sanity. (Forgive me, I start tearing up just typing those words.) In reality, all the excited talk of the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan and similar bipartisan budgetary exercises misses the central point about the true price of politics: Taxes and spending were always issues to be resolved in the 2012 presidential campaign—and not at some White House conference table in 2011.