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Woodward Book Details Battles Over Deficit

Jonathan Weisman|The New York Times
Friday, 7 Sep 2012 | 1:26 PM ET

WASHINGTON — A new book by the journalist Bob Woodward chronicles the descent of Barack Obama’s Washington into partisan trench warfare and mines the minutiae of the largely failed negotiations between House Republicans and the White House to tame the nation’s deficit problem over the last two years.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio(L), President Barack Obama (R)
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio(L), President Barack Obama (R)

In details down to the gum chewed by President Obama (Nicorette) and the wine sipped by the House Speaker John A. Boehner (merlot), “The Price of Politics” paints a portrait of dysfunction that began even before Mr. Obama was inaugurated and has only grown worse.

The book highlights problems that are well known in Washington, but Mr. Woodward manages to get the president, Mr. Boehner and their inner circles to talk about them. Mr. Boehner criticizes the rudderless leadership of the White House staff while President Obama maintains that the speaker never really wanted to cut a deal last summer when the two tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” to lower spending, raise revenue and increase the nation’s debt limit.

The book goes on sale next Tuesday, but The New York Times was able to buy a copy on Thursday from a retailer.

With the presidential election weeks away, the book will do little to reshape Mr. Obama’s image as a powerful man steering the government forward, but it is also unlikely to engender much support for Republican leaders in Congress who seem unable to control their members.

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The book makes clear that any hope of bipartisanship after Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory evaporated even before his inauguration. It paints negotiations between the Obama White House and Congressional Republican leaders as talks between camps speaking different languages.

During his transition, Mr. Woodward recounts, Mr. Obama convened a meeting with Republicans to map out an economic stimulus bill. From the start, Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia and now the majority leader, is painted as the biggest obstructionist.

Mr. Woodward demonstrates early on a desire by Mr. Cantor to reduce programs for the poor, including eliminating nutrition and education financing, increasing work requirements for those on food stamps and cutting certain job training programs. Those efforts underlie the fight over legislation to this day.

The interactions between Mr. Obama and Ivan Seidenberg, then the chief executive of Verizon, which Mr. Woodward uses to illustrate Mr. Obama’s often frosty relations with business, read like the meeting of men from different planets. Mr. Seidenberg lectures the president on business and the importance of private enterprise. Mr. Obama reacts indignantly to what White House officials see as disrespect.

“With all due respect, we will be here when you’re gone,” Mr. Seidenberg is quoted as telling Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser and Obama confidante. Mr. Woodward also asserts that the current plan to reduce the deficit by making larger cuts to both military and general spending next year originated with the White House. Mr. Obama’s aides, the book says, used a 1985 law as the model for the trigger, or “the fiscal cliff,” to help come to a deal.

Last summer’s bitter budget negotiations have been hashed over in several lengthy news accounts and Mr. Woodward’s is the most exhaustive, although it is not clear how much new information, if any, he has uncovered.

He does make it clear they came tantalizingly close to a deal: “As other accounts have noted, a separate, bipartisan Senate proposal rocked the negotiations. There were signs of fractiousness in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses. Even if Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner made a deal, it was not clear that Congress would pass it.

The ultimate problem, the book suggests, was a lack of leadership by both Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama.

Mr. Boehner said that none of Mr. Obama’s staff — including William M. Daley, then his chief of staff — were “steering the ship underneath him.”

“They never had their act together,” Mr. Boehner tells Mr. Woodward. He added: “It’s not that they’re bad people. But there’s no structure.”

High-ranking White House officials laughed off Mr. Boehner’s criticism, saying that Mr. Boehner was the one who did not steer his own ship, a view Mr. Obama also seemed to ascribe to.

“I think John wanted to get a deal,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with Mr. Woodward. “And I think that, had he had more control of his caucus, we could have gotten a deal done a month earlier.”

Jennifer Steinhauer, Annie Lowrey and Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.

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