I received as a gift Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics.” It’s a depressing book in which nothing happens, the government is stalemated, and helps to explain the somewhat justified atmosphere of cynicism and disappointment in the country today. Congressional leaders and President Obama have not been able to agree on a grand bargain of economic stimulus, spending cuts, changes to entitlements such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid. They have not been able to effectively manage federal spending, tax policy, or the debt ceiling. Instead, the economy has limped along, from budget crisis to budget crisis and threat of government shutdown every few months.
- “a White House plagued by infighting, disorganization and inconsistent leadership.” (These charges were also lodged at the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in their first terms, and Clinton, for his part, did reach a grand bargain with Republicans in 2005-6 after the government shutdown.) Republicans charge that the Obama administration was so insecure in how the Democratic base would react to a grand bargain that it “moved the goal posts” and added an additional $400 million in revenue at the last minute.
- “a Republican Party bent on obstruction and increasingly beholden to its insurgent right wing.” Each time Speaker Boehner would “crawl out on a limb” and reach agreement with Obama, “Eric Cantor and the Tea Party sawed it off.”
- “a Congress riven by party rivalries, intraparty power struggles, petty turf wars and an inability to focus on long-term solutions instead of temporary Band-Aids.”
Obama shortcomings? The book does contain familiar criticisms of President Obama, that he doesn’t spend time “cultivating relationships with members of Congress, Republican or Democrat; that he has distant (if not downright tense) relationships with business executives” that he’s an “idealistic but sometimes naïve and overconfident chief executive with little managerial experience and little understanding of the horse-trading and deal-making that make Washington run.”
The book does raise questions. Might a more skilled and better organized Democratic President, such as Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, or even Hillary Clinton, be able to manage congressional Democrats better than Barack Obama, to cajole, charm, seduce and/or force them to reach a budget deal? Of course, when Clinton was president, he was perceived as notoriously disorganized, and Johnson’s arm-twisting, to the point of blackmail, was deeply resented.
Might a more skilled Republican leader, such as Newt Gingrich or Bob Dole, have been able to manage congressional Republicans better than Speaker John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell? At one point, Obama says he could have reached a deal with Dole and Gingrich, but not Boehner.
Woodward criticizes both Obama and Boehner for failing to transcend “their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.” While Obama was handed a miserable, failing economy and a recalcitrant Republican Congress, in his first term he failed to work his will on the Congress or on the nation’s budget.
Woodward’s premise, that Obama and Congress “failed to restore the economy and set it on course to fiscal stability,” is questionable, too narrowly focused on congressional budget debates over too short a time period. In 2009, Obama and Congress did work together to pass a $700 billion stimulus package in 2009 and avoided another Great Depression without busting the budget. While the budget impasse of 2011-13 may have delayed the economic recovery and cost the country possibly millions of new jobs, the political decision to take no action were the consequence of democratic elections in 2010 and 2012.
One could argue that political forces larger than any one individual — President Obama or Speaker Boehner — prevented Congress from taking action. The American people were simply deeply divided on the course of action they wanted their leaders to take, and in a democratic system, political leaders and parties defy the people at their peril.