Bob Woodward’s latest book, The Price of Politics, details skirmishing between President Obama and congressional Republicans on fiscal issues, including the intense 44 days in the summer of 2011 when the nation faced default and Obama and House Speaker John Boehner struggled for a “grand bargain” but settled for stopgap measures. Woodward talked to National Journal about what might lie ahead. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Do you want to venture a guess about how the “fiscal cliff” crisis will be sorted out?
WOODWARD I just don’t know. We’re at an unnecessary point of catastrophe and peril. You know, they should have fixed this, or put it on the road to being fixed. Cut something. Find some way to get some sort of tax revenue, or the appearance of tax revenue. They should have just started something. And they didn’t.
NJ Do you see in what occurred in 2010 and 2011, and since, as a road map to what’s ahead?
WOODWARD Only a road map to a series of dead ends or postponements. Now, they can postpone lots of this stuff and make it appear again as if something’s been done. The real problem next year isn’t the Bush tax cuts or spending cuts, because I think they can kick that away. It’s that they’re going to have to borrow another $1 trillion or $2 trillion, to extend the debt ceiling, again. And you know, Boehner and [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor agree on one thing: We’ve got to cut spending.
NJ The book mentions that, deep down, the president’s got a “Blue Dog” streak—that he’s kind of a moderate who is locked politically into a fiscal philosophy that really is not his.
WOODWARD Yeah. I thought of calling this book The Divided Man because he’s very smart and absorbs the arguments on both sides. Obama understands that we’ve got to cut things but also is a progressive Democrat, so the Divided Man looms large. And, so you see, he is trying to fix these things in negotiations. But he never carries it over the finish line.
NJ Is that a lack of will or a lack of needed support from the Democratic side of the aisle?
WOODWARD I talked to [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell about this, and he’s saying on the super committee that the leader of the Democratic Party is not [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid; it’s the president. And the president just stayed away from the super committee. They should have worked that out, and he presumably could have used his leverage. Now, he didn’t. He called [committee Chairs] Patty Murray once, and he called Jeb Hensarling once.
NJ Throughout these fiscal discussions, Obama’s intensity would vary?
WOODWARD He never kind of called everyone in and said, “We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do something here.” It was kind of Nicorettes and merlot with Boehner. But if a president insists on getting something done, it generally will get done. Look at Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Boehner and the Republicans are also responsible. They didn’t work with one voice, to say the least. Just like Obama couldn’t control Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
NJ From your reporting, what do you think of the Boehner-Cantor relationship?
WOODWARD I have in the book that the president and Boehner are sitting around kind of joking about it—that Cantor’s trying to get the speaker’s job. It’s not a pretty picture.
NJ You’ve got kind of a gloomy conclusion about where we go from here. Were there any points of optimism?
WOODWARD There was a lot of sincere effort. Sincerity isn’t a strategy, either.
NJ Any speculation about what a Romney presidency would add to this?
WOODWARD Well, he laid out his theory of the case in the debate. And he said he would compromise. Now, talk to people in Massachusetts, you get mixed reviews. Does Romney come in with a new, “OK, I’ll do it differently, we’re going to cut tax rates” attitude? Is it plausible?
NJ Would a second-term President Obama—who is not so worried about reelection—be a different Obama?
WOODWARD He may say, “OK, now I’ve got to fix this problem—the financial house of the United States is not in order.” In fact, it is in disarray. It is on the edge of catastrophe. And Obama understands that. He knows we have to cut. He doesn’t want to hurt vulnerable populations. You have to make a decision. And not facing reelection might be liberating.
NJ Is divided government incapable of addressing these problems?
WOODWARD Mitch McConnell and others say this is when you get things done. Divided government should work. If you look at Tip O’Neill and President Reagan on Social Security and tax reform, the deal was—and it’s the Joe Biden rule—“One for you, one for me.” What they did on Social Security was increase the payroll tax and cut some benefits. Reagan sold it one way, and O’Neill sold it another way. I’ve had a lot of people who’ve read this book say, “You know if Biden was running the show they might make more deals, because he’s the old school.”
This story appeared in the print edition of National Journal under the headline "In Short Supply."
This article appears in the October 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.