President Obama Called Debt Limit Talks ‘Bizarro World,’ And New Bob Woodward Book Bears That Out

WASHINGTON – If you’d like to feel ill, read Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics.”

The 379-page book, which comes out Tuesday and was obtained by The Huffington Post a day early, is a detailed, close-up look at the debt ceiling battle of July 2011, when the U.S. government came very close to default and a potential economic collapse.

Woodward is meticulous, as usual, and partly because of his attention to detail, the middle section of the book –- with its endless descriptions of meetings, mind-numbing budget figures and constant gridlock –- will make you want to bang your head against a wall.

But the arcane and complex subject matter is only merely confusing. What makes the book depressing is the inability of leaders in Washington, starting with President Barack Obama but also including top Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress, to look beyond their own political fortunes and forge an agreement when the nation’s fortunes were so clearly at risk.

Woodward lays the blame, ultimately, at Obama’s feet. But it’s obvious from Woodward’s reporting that the Obama White House wanted to reach a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit and achieve some long-term reforms on spending and entitlements. That cuts against the Republican argument that Obama has not tried to fix these problems.

The more pertinent debate is whether Obama led on the issue. And Woodward’s book makes a compelling case that Obama did not do as much as he should have. But he also faults House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who tried in June and July 2011 to reach a deal with the president.

“When you examine the record in depth, you cannot help but conclude that neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled it particularly well,” Woodward writes. “Despite their evolving personal relationship, neither was able to transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas. Rather than fixing the problem, they postponed it.”

The book has essentially three sections: the first 100 pages or so is a set up for the second and third portions, and lays down the predicate that Obama’s White House did not do the necessary work to build relationships with Republicans or the business community early on in his presidency.

Woodward uses Valerie Jarrett, a close personal adviser to Obama, as a symbol of White House clumsiness. He reports that after Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg felt that he had been “used as window dressing” when Obama spoke to him for only a moment after inviting him to watch the 2010 Super Bowl at the White House, Jarrett chastised him.

“Her response: Hey, you’re in the room with him. You should be happy,” Woodward writes. “Seidenberg was not.”

And to Obama’s first budget office chief, Peter Orszag, Jarrett issued a rebuke after he wrote a newspaper column the administration did not like. Orszag made an appeal to her that his criticism of the medical malpractice reforms in Obama’s health care law were necessary for any Democratic advocacy on behalf of the law to be considered.

But Jarrett, Woodward writes, would hear nothing of it: “Jarrett’s answer was delivered with Politburo finality: You have burned your bridges,” he writes.

Woodward sums up his perspective of Jarrett: “She had the view that if you simply arranged more meetings, that would solve any problem. But the interactions had an emptiness that made the problem worse. Sometimes, it’s not a good idea to have a meeting and discussion.”

But Woodward also holds up Obama’s blasting of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in an April 13, 2011 speech, while Ryan sat in the front row, as a prime example of miscalculation and incompetence. Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles told Ryan –- who is now Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate -– that he was “disgusted” by Obama’s speech.

Obama told Woodward in an interview that he had not known Ryan would be in the audience. “We made a mistake,” he said.

Then, with an eight-page description of a May 5, 2011 meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders on a debt limit solution, Woodward kicks off the second section of the book, which details the beginning of the search for a deal. The third portion shows what happened at the end stages of the negotiations, and is distinct because of the way that the narrative picks up steam.

Reading the second section is painful. It is over 100 pages and reads like something out of the existential Samuel Becket play, “Waiting for Godot.” At times, reading the umpteenth description of back room bickering, it seems like a disjointed procession of people throwing out random ideas and figures. Partly this is because of the subject matter. But it is also partly the result of an incomplete portrait. Many of the meetings read as if Woodward is writing up an account based on yellow legal pad notes from one or two of the attendees, who wrote down every few sentences.

To wit, on page 222 (I picked a page somewhat a random), witness this exchange between Boehner, Obama, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner:

“Tax cuts aren’t spending,” said Boehner. He believed they spurred the economy that would then yield more tax revenue.

“I’m not proposing any tax cut,” said Kyl.

“This is Bizarro World,” said the president.

“Let’s take Doc fix and unemployment insurance off the table, since those are spending,” Boehner said.

“What matters to the market is the long-term trend,” Geithner interjected.

A page later, the absurdity reaches a climax, as Woodward describes the same July 13, 2011 meeting, with House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.):

“‘I just met with a person today who’s just out of college,’ said Pelosi for no clear reason. ‘They were optimistic and hopeful and we need to get this deal.’ The president put his chin in his hand and started playing with his name card. Pelosi went on with a long anecdote, finally lamenting their apparent failure at negotiations. ‘I don’t know who is going to tell the children,’ she said. Cantor and [Steny] Hoyer, who were sitting next to each other, began a private conversation while Pelosi told her story. ‘We listened to Cantor day in and day out,’ Pelosi said, ‘but he’s not listening right now.’ The president burst out laughing.”

Finally, the story begins to move as the early August deadline gets closer. The meetings become more urgent. Discussions become less circular. But the ideological rigidity remains. Republicans will not budge on tax increases. Democrats do not want to cut spending significantly or overhaul entitlement programs.

Jack Lew, the current White House chief of staff who was White House budget chief at the time, emerges in Woodward’s telling as a chief tormentor of the Republicans.

When Boehner reopened talks with Obama on July 15, he had a request, Woodward writes: “Please don’t send Jack Lew. The budget director talked too much, was uncompromising, and Boehner’s staff did not believe he could get to yes.”

Boehner told Woodward: “Jack Lew said no 999,000 times out of a million.” Then he corrected himself. “999,999. It was unbelievable. At one point I told the president, keep him out of here. I don’t need somebody who just knows how to say no.”

Boehner’s chief of staff at the time, Barry Jackson, described Lew this way: “Always trying to protect the sacred cows of the left.” Woodward writes that Jackson said Lew would be “going through Medicare and Medicaid almost line by line while Boehner was just trying to reach some topline agreement.”

To Lew, the problem was that Boehner did not like details.

“When the Speaker’s office made a proposal, Lew would return with an analysis of what it would mean for the average Medicare retiree and people at different income levels,” Woodward writes. “It complicated the negotiations, and in Lew’s experience, the answer ‘things are complicated’ was not highly appreciated by the speaker’s office.”

As for the president, he told his top liaison to Congress, Rob Nabors –- who has a central role in Woodward’s telling -– that reaching a “grand bargain” on deficits and debt was “more important than health care.” And he compared himself to the woman in the biblical story who tells King Solomon to give a baby to another woman who has laid claim to the child rather than cutting it in half.

“We just have to accept we’re the mom who’s not willing to split the baby in half,” Obama told advisers, holding himself out as a caring steward of the economy.

As the deadline for raising the debt limit approaches, and talks between Obama and Boehner fall apart over the issue of whether $800 billion in increased revenue can be moved up to $1.2 trillion, the tension is gripping, and the fissures between Boehner and Cantor on the Republican side, and between Obama and Pelosi and Harry Reid on the Democratic side, are fascinating.

The most specific significant critique that Woodward levels is aimed largely at the president, and gives him substantial blame for talks with Boehner falling apart.

“Most extraordinary was the repeated use of the telephone for critical exchanges. Especially baffling was President Obama’s decision to make his critical request for $400 billion more in revenue in a spur-of-the-moment phone call,” Woodward writes. “The result was a monumental communications lapse between the president and the speaker at a critical juncture.”

Most of the most eyebrow-raising sections in the book were leaked out ahead of the book’s sale date. But there were still numerous nuggets that have not yet been reported:

  • Boehner said he and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley had “a long relationship” and trusted each other, “almost like brothers.” Woodward asked Daley about this comment, and though Daley was “at first … flattered,” he added that “he looked on the speaker as ‘not quite a brother.'”
  • Nabors told Obama, after being grilled and lambasted by Senate Democrats at a July 21 meeting on Capitol Hill: “It was just one of the more awful experiences of my life.”
  • Boehner at one point proposed that the trigger to force the Super Committee to agree on a second round of deficit reduction would be to eliminate the Individual Payment Advisory Board and the individual mandate in Obama’s health care law. Obama responded to Boehner’s idea of gutting his signature legislative accomplishment with this: “Creative thought, John.”
  • Boehner and Jackson discussed Obama’s motivations: “Boehner reported that Obama said, ‘John, I make 2 million. You can’t expect me to ask somebody to take a cut in their benefits if I’m not willing to take a cut.’ It’s almost like he’s ashamed that he’s been blessed and he’s made money, they concluded. It’s as if he’s guilty of his success. ‘Oh, my God,’ they imagined the president saying, ‘I’m so embarrassed that I’ve done well, and I need to make sure that I do my self-flagellation.'”
  • One of Boehner’s favorite hobbies is tending to his lawnmower: “This was a ritual the speaker enjoyed — often telling staff how much he looked forward to it. He would tip the push mower over on its side, remove the blade and sharpen it with a hand file, then, like any suburbanite, mow the lawn.”
  • After Obama and Boehner finally reached an agreement on July 31, “Obama turned to the staffers in the room. ‘Let’s not do this again,’ he said. ‘We’re not going to negotiate on the debt limit ever again.”
  • When Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reached Kyl’s home to tell him about his super committee assignment, Kyl’s wife, Caryll, said Jon was working in yard with rented equipment so he couldn’t talk. “Kyl called Murray the next day. ‘You know I was renting it by the hour,’ he explained.”

Woodward’s own attitude toward Obama is telegraphed, somewhat cryptically, in the book’s prologue. It does not appear to be all that positive. Woodward discusses meeting then-Sen. Obama at the 2006 Gridiron Dinner in Washington, and writes that Obama “smiled me down.”

“The certainty on his face was deep, giving me pause,” the 69-year-old Woodward writes, adding that he was “trying to hold my ground” in the conversation with the younger man.

Woodward ends the prologue with a contrast between a Gridiron speech in 1981 by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that had “some good jokes” but which centered around the theme of “what it means to be a Democrat.” Obama’s speech, on the other hand, was “about Obama, his inexperience, and … what he had not done,” Woodward writes.

“Two and a half years later, he was president-elect of the United States.”

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  • Joe Biden, Vice President

    (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

  • Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State

    (HARAZ N. GHANBARI/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury


  • Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense

    (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

  • Eric Holder, Attorney General

    (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

  • Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior

    (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images,)

  • Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

    (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Rebecca Blank, Acting Secretary of Commerce

    Acting United States Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank listens at a news conference for the opening of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s first satellite location in Detroit, Friday, July 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

  • Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor

    (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services

    (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Young Elected Officials Network)

  • Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

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  • Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation

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  • Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy

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  • Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

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  • Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

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  • Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security

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  • Jack Lew, White House Chief Of Staff (Cabinet-rank)

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  • Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (Cabinet-rank)

    (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Jeffrey Zients, Office of Management and Budget Acting Director (Cabinet-rank)

    (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Ambassador Ron Kirk, U.S. Trade Representative (Cabinet-rank)

    (ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Cabinet-rank)

    (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

  • Alan Krueger, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman (Cabinet-rank)

    (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • Karen Mills, Small Business Administrator

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