Although running things is a joint venture between the president and Congress, a president has to dominate Congress — or at least be seen as dominating Congress. —Bob Woodward
In his latest book, investigative journalist Bob Woodward looks at President Barack Obama's leadership during the struggle over the debt limit in 2011 and concludes that there were "gaps" in leadership due to a failure to cultivate congressional relationships.
"My conclusion is President Clinton, President Reagan — and if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things — they by and large worked their will," Woodward told Diane Sawyer in a recent interview. "On this, President Obama did not."
Woodward is an investigative journalist and author, and is best known for teaming up with Carl Bernstein to report on the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, which led to the best-selling book "All the President's Men" in 1974.
In an excerpt of his new book at The Washington Post, Woodward writes that President Obama summoned Congressional leaders to the White House to discuss the debt limit, and was soon cut out of the meeting as John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., took over.
"Although running things is a joint venture between the president and Congress, a president has to dominate Congress — or at least be seen as dominating Congress," Woodward wrote. "The last president to fold was George H.W. Bush, who gave in to Democrats' demands that income taxes be raised in a 1990 budget deal. And Bush was a one-term president."
The deal negotiated among congressional leaders would require a two-step increase in the debt limit, and would guarantee that the debt limit would be revisited during the 2012 presidential campaign.
In a meeting with Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Reid chief-of-staff David Krone outlined the deal for the president, who said he did not trust Republicans. In return, Krone reportedly "blasted the president to his face."
"Mr. President, I am sorry — with all due respect — that we are in this situation that we're in, but we got handed this football on Friday night. And I didn't create this situation," Krone said. "The first thing that baffles me is, from my private-sector experience, the first rule that I've always been taught is to have a Plan B. And it is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B."
Agreeing to the plan would give Republicans leverage, Woodward wrote, allowing them to bring the issue back in the middle of the presidential campaign and to impose more conditions on the next debt ceiling increase. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner advised Obama to sign the bill, while Obama's senior political adviser, David Plouffe, told the president not to cave.
The standoff concluded when a deal was reached at the end of July.
In a Washington Post review of the book, Steve Luxenberg wrote that it sketched a portrait that showed Obama was "perhaps a bit too confident in his negotiating skills and in his ability to understand his adversaries."
The White House pushed back against the books' claims, The Hill reported Monday, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying Obama's leadership during the crisis was "significant."
Prior to the book's release, other media reports shared additional excerpts, including anecdotes about Obama insulting current Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi putting the president on mute and Obama's legislative affairs director and former budget aide Rob Nabors talking about tax hikes on millionaires.
In April 2011, the White House reportedly invited Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to attend a speech by the president where Obama would lay out his budget vision. The speech came shortly after Ryan released his "Path to Prosperity" budget. In his speech, Obama said Ryan's plan was "deeply pessimistic," and paints a "vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can't afford to fix them."
"This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America," Obama said. "There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not the vision of the America I know."
"I'll go ahead and say it — I think that I was not aware when I gave that speech that Jack Ryan (sic) was going to be sitting right there," Obama later told Woodward. "We literally didn't know he was going to be there until — or I didn't know until I arrived. I might have modified some of it so that we would leave more negotiations open, because I do think that they felt like we were trying to embarrass him."
Obama's account conflicts with reporting from the time, which stated that Ryan was invited to the speech, as well as a more recent statement where Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney said Ryan was invited by the White House, RSVP'd and was given an assigned seat on the front row.
"I thought the president's invitation . . . was an olive branch," Ryan said in 2011. "Instead what we got was a speech that was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate and hopelessly inadequate to addressing our country's fiscal challenges. What we heard today was not fiscal leadership from our commander-in-chief. What we heard today was a political broadside from our campaigner-in-chief."
Obama's deficit commission chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson said the speech was "harsh," and "like inviting a guy to his own hanging," The New York Times reported in February.
In another excerpt, The Washington Post book review told of a phone call President Obama made to Pelosi's office. After putting Obama on speakerphone so everyone could hear, Pelosi reportedly pushed the mute button so he couldn't hear them as they "got back to the hard numbers."
The review also said that after Republicans won the House in 2010, nobody in the White House had the phone number to call and congratulate Boehner, the new House Speaker.
Buzzfeed tells of another portion of the book where Democratic senators confronted Obama's legislative affairs director and former budget aide Rob Nabors about closing the deficit. According to the report, Democrats accused Nabors of playing on Republican turf by talking about spending cuts rather than higher taxes on the rich.
"You could raise all the taxes you want on millionaires," Nabors said, but would never raise enough.
Carney told reporters Monday that Obama's leadership on the debt limit showed a "sincere and deliberate" effort to compromise, but in the end, Speaker Boehner "looked over his shoulder and found there was no one behind him."