As the nation heads for a "fiscal cliff," the national debt surpasses $16 trillion and 100 percent of GDP, and Moody's warns of another credit downgrade, famed journalist Bob Woodward has written a book recounting the story of how the nation's current precarious predicament was almost avoided.
In The Price of Politics, Woodward takes his readers behind the scenes of the negotiations between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to strike a "grand bargain" that would have put the nation on a course toward fiscal responsibility. While noting there is plenty of blame to go around, in the end, Woodward believes the failure was mostly due to a failure of leadership from Obama, which has put the White House on the defensive.
In July 2011, Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) had negotiated a "grand bargain" compromise to both raise the nation's debt ceiling and deal with long term budget deficits. It would have reformed entitlements (something Republicans wanted) and increased government revenue (something Democrats wanted) by eliminating tax breaks while lowering overall tax rates.
Though Republicans in his own party were strongly opposed to revenue increases, Boehner had agreed to $800 billion in additional revenue. After Boehner thought he had an agreement, Obama asked for an additional $400 billion in revenue just 12 days before Treasury would begin defaulting on payments. What happened next is a matter of dispute.
On "ABC World News Tonight" Monday, Diane Sawyer interviewed Woodward about the book. The show played audio of Woodward's phone interviews with Boehner and Obama.
"I want to be very emphatic here," Obama told Woodward, "at no point did I say, John, take it or leave it."
In his interview with Boehner, Woodward relayed Obama's words: "his position is, he was not saying I have to have it, he was saying, I want you to consider it."
"Oh, no no, no no. Hold on. No, no, no, no," Boehner replied then recounted Obama saying, "I need $400 billion more revenue -- I need."
"It was increasingly clear that no one was running Washington," Woodward wrote. "That was trouble for everyone, but especially for Obama."
Woodward's account of the events depicts Obama as over-confident in his ability to deal with Congress.
"John Boehner is like a Republican state senator," the president once said, according to Woodward. "He's a golf-playing, cigarette-smoking, country-club Republican who's there to make deals. He's very familiar to me."
Later in the negotiations, though, congressional leaders would set their own course, leaving Obama out of the process. With about 10 days left, Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Obama that they were going to negotiate a deal without him.
After Obama objected, Boehner told him, "As I read the Constitution, the Congress writes the laws. You get to decide if you want to sign them."
The congressional leaders negotiated a deal without Obama, but it did not contain what Obama wanted most -- a debt limit increase that would last until after the 2012 election. Obama killed the deal by threatening a veto.
The book also portrays Obama as lacking a skill that Woodward believes is essential to a competent president -- building relationships with members of Congress. He noted that after Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 elections, Obama was going to call Boehner for a customary congratulatory phone call, but no one in the White House even had his phone number.
When asked about the book, White House spokesperson Jay Carney downplayed the notion that building relationships is essential for good governance.
"I'm not sure what magical past people are invoking where they imagine that in any recent time, serious accomplishments were achieved in policy matters at a dinner in Georgetown. It just doesn't happen," Carney said Monday.
When Carney's remarks were played for Woodward Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," he replied, "Look, it's quite obvious, Obama has a distance from these people. He doesn't spend the time. He hasn't built the relationships. And those human relationships matter."
In the end, a compromise was negotiated between two Washington old-timers who do believe that relationships matter in politics -- Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell. The deal they reached did not save the day put delayed the tough choices for another day. Whoever wins in the November election will be faced with this "fiscal cliff" on day one.
The Price of Politics is Woodward's 17th book. He first came to national attention when he and Carl Bernstein broke the story of the Watergate scandal in 1972.