In an appealing 381-page package that reads like 80 pages, legendary investigative journalist Bob Woodward narrates the political fighting over federal spending and tax policy, as well as the controversial (mis) management of the U.S. economy, by both the executive and legislative branches between 2009 and the summer of 2012.
Delving into one fascinating turn of events after another with cinematic pacing, The Price of Politics is a stark recollection of the collapse of cooperation in government during Barack Obama’s first—and potentially only—presidential term from the inside out. Woodward’s is a rich, indelible, day-to-day (and oftentimes hour-to-hour) account of the tense, 3-and-a-half year grind between key players of the Obama administration, including Democratic congressional leadership, and of course the one and only GOPO—the Grand Old Party of Obstructionism.
Woodward doesn’t just provide a significantly deeper if not clearer understanding of the lawmaking machine, of how the White House and Congress work together (or against one another) to run the country (…into the ground). Immediately after reading it, I was motivated to, on one hand, compile a new list of journalism books I must waste my money on next, and on the other hand, scour through my personal library to find all the political strategy books I could find (like The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, an unendingly interesting tome). I’m officially hooked on investigative journalism and below-the-surface political maneuvering.
I can also thank Woodward for helping me get to know my president better, and the truth is simple: Obama is a jerk. He kicked off his presidency with aggression, steamrolling legislation past obstinate, oversensitive Republicans to the tune of his first White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s early mantra: “We have the votes. F— ‘em.” After he and his House Dems took their “shellacking” almost 2 years ago, he tried to play nice, supplanting the abrasive Emanuelian approach with Vice President Joe Biden’s less combative, more traditional methods (according to Woodward, “Biden is known in the White House as the ‘McConnell Whisperer’”).
In 2011, dealing with a new Republican majority in Congress and the threat of sovereign default, Obama acknowledged the dire need for deficit reduction and sought his own $4 trillion deficit plan; but when Boehner and Cantor refused to compromise on taxes, for fear of disappointing Grover Norquist or something, Obama walked out on them and took it to the American people (who seemed to sympathize, giving the impotent, Tea Party-infected Congress a single-digit approval rating).
In an interview with Jessica Yellin, the president himself affirmed his preference for being a father and a family man over “doin’ the circuit,” or “being out there, slapping backs and wheelin’ and dealin.’”
And Obama’s cold shoulders weren’t strictly reserved for his political opponents. Woodward emphasized his aloofness within the business community—the “fat cat bankers”, as he liked to call them—as well. As with the partisan drafting of the H. R. 1 stimulus when then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor “resented Obama’s presumption that he knew what Republicans wanted,” CEOs were resentful of Obama’s perceived tendency to stereotype them. Woodward relates a moment in which Obama dismissed a bunch of CEOs, telling them, “I know you guys are Republicans.” Woodward also relates how Obama downright used some CEOs, as in the case of Ivan Seidenberg, former CEO of Verizon. “The White House,” Woodward writes, “invited Seidenberg […] to the President’s Super Bowl party” in 2010; but at the party, “Obama chatted with Seidenberg for about 15 seconds before the game”—and then “went down to the front row to watch the game with his buddies.”
“That was it,” according to Woodward’s sources. “Fifteen seconds. Seidenberg felt he had been used as window dressing.” And it doesn’t stop there (see Obama’s hilarious and palpable dismissal of Greg Brown, president and CEO of Motorola below).
In the off-the-cuff albeit fortunately not-off-the-mic words of former-President George W. Bush, President Obama is a “major league asshole”—and I don’t blame him.
There’s plenty of implied criticism of the president in this book to convince anyone of Woodward’s remarkable lack of bias, so it’s safe to assume that any impartial reader of would come to the conclusion that if there was any struggling to get things done in Washington over the last 4 years, the Democrats were the ones doing it. They bent over backwards to compromise with Republicans, conceding so many spending cuts and thus in turn compromising so many of their own values—whereas the Republicans, particularly when it came to the protection of Medicare and Medicaid, the idea (the necessity) of raising taxes, and even something as basic as raising the debt ceiling, were not interested in any sort of compromise.
Woodward portrays a bunch of imbecilic children taking Obama’s early minor slights personally at the expense of their constituents.
One of the book’s more interesting citations belongs to Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. In reaction to Obama shredding his “Path to Prosperity” proposal in right in front of him in a speech at GWU, the publicly dejected Ryan remarked, “There are fights, and of course, we beat the hell out of the president [in November]. But we’re just Congress. He’s the president. Isn’t he supposed to be kind of above it all?”
My response was a fit of laughter. NO, I thought. The president is supposed to do what he and his highly qualified advisors feel is in the best interests of everyone else. I found myself asking (an invisible Ryan in an empty chair), “Can’t you be ‘above it all?’ Can’t you be big enough to compromise, to raise taxes on the rich, or dare to read books that prove you wrong about the economy? Or do you believe that compromise consists of Obama doing everything you want him to do…?”
One of Woodward’s dominant recurring themes is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s notorious declaration in an interview with the National Journal of the GOP’s goal for 3 straight years now: that “the single most important thing [they] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” They wanted to achieve the failure of one man.
I can’t blame President Obama for being a jerk. The Price of Politics illustrates why he’s well within his rights to be one.
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Excerpt from The Price of Politics:
Trust is low, Brown said. You come to meetings with us, use a Tele-PrompTer, take no questions […] and the media is in the room.
[…] Obama didn’t say anything, just sat with his hand on his chin.
Second, Brown said, the rhetoric is inflammatory. It is not constructive.
Give me an example, Obama said.
‘Fat-cat bankers’ […] That was offensive to me, Brown said. I’m not a banker or on Wall Street. […] It is not appropriate, it is not presidential.
‘I’m surprised that you have such thin skin,’ Obama replied.
I don’t, Brown said. It is not presidential, he repeated. We can agree to disagree, and you can have a strong point of view, but I didn’t think it was a presidential comment.
Okay, the president said.
[…] Larry Summers, I’m sure, is brilliant, Brown said. No question. In fact I think he’s probably an economic savant. But he’s a pain in the ass to deal with. He’s an obstacle. And nothing ever comes out the other end.
‘Greg,’ Obama said, ‘he’s leaving.’
But he’s still here for a while, Brown continued. […] When I call, I don’t get answers. I get cross-examined for even asking questions. And it’s not a fun experience. So while he’s an economic savant, nothing gets done.
The president burst into laughter. ‘Larry’s leaving,’ he repeated.
Originally published on PolicyMic (09/28/12).
Edited by Alex Marin.