A combination of miscalculations, ideological rigidity and discord within the leadership of both political parties brought the U.S. government to the brink of a catastrophic default during the 2011 showdown over the federal debt ceiling, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.
The Price of Politics, Woodward’s 17th book, chronicles President Obama’s contentious and still unresolved fiscal policy battle with congressional Republicans that dominated the White House agenda for nearly all of 2011. (On Sunday,The Washington Post will publish an adaptation in its print, mobile and Web editions. The book is scheduled for release on Tuesday. Woodward is a Post associate editor.)
As the nation’s leaders raced to avert a default that could have shattered the financial markets’ confidence and imperiled the world’s economy, Obama convened an urgent meeting with top congressional leaders in the White House. According to Woodward, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pointedly told the president that the lawmakers were working on a plan and wouldn’t negotiate with him.
Obama, surprised, told Boehner and the others that they could not exclude him from the process, Woodward reports. “I’ve got to sign this bill,” he is quoted as saying.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) then said the four leaders wanted to speak privately, asking Obama to leave a meeting he had called “in his own house,” in Woodward’s words. The president, fuming, agreed to let them talk. “This was it,” Woodward writes. “Congress was taking over.”
Congress’s reemergence as a political force is one of the book’s underlying themes. For decades, Capitol Hill has been ceding influence and authority to the White House, especially to presidents who were bent on expanding executive-branch powers. In Woodward’s account, the balance of power has shifted at least temporarily back to the legislative branch during the past two years, aided by the Obama administration’s failure to nurture the alliances that it needed to offset the GOP’s huge victory in the 2010 midterm elections. The Republicans took control of the House, claiming 63 new seats, the largest turnover since the 1930s.
The book points out that the administration seemed unprepared for the road ahead, as demonstrated on election night in 2010. “Protocol dictated that the president make a congratulatory call to Boehner,” Woodward writes. “The trouble was, nobody in the White House had thought to get a phone number.”
The timing of the book’s publication, with just two months left before Election Day, may pose more of a challenge for Obama than Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee. The president and his White House team occupy center stage in Woodward’s account, along with Boehner, while Romney has no role in the events covered by the book.
Woodward’s portrait of Obama, sketched through a series of scenes from meeting rooms and phone calls, reveals a man perhaps a bit too confident in his negotiating skills and in his ability to understand his adversaries. Obama is described as believing he had a particular bead on the motivations and temperament of Boehner, now in his 11th term as a House member from a district in southwest Ohio.
The two men engaged in secret talks for several weeks in July 2011 as they attempted to resolve the stalemate over raising the federal debt ceiling, then set at $14.3 trillion. Boehner was seeking large spending cuts as part of an overall deal. Obama wanted the Republicans to agree to new revenue. Without the authority for new borrowing beyond the $14.3 trillion limit, the government would immediately run out of cash to pay its bills and debt.