Bob Woodward Book: Debt Deal Collapse Led to 'Pure Fury' From President Obama
The book, "The Price of Politics," on sale Sept. 11, 2012, shows how close the president and the House speaker were to defying Washington odds and establishing a spending framework that included both new revenues and major changes to long-sacred entitlement programs.
But at a critical juncture, with an agreement tantalizingly close, Obama pressed Boehner for additional taxes as part of a final deal -- a miscalculation, in retrospect, given how far the House speaker felt he'd already gone.
"He was spewing coals," Boehner told Woodward, in what is described as a borderline "presidential tirade."
"He was pissed…. He wasn't going to get a damn dime more out of me. He knew how far out on a limb I was. But he was hot. It was clear to me that coming to an agreement with him was not going to happen, and that I had to go to Plan B."
he failure of Obama to connect with Boehner was vaguely reminiscent of another phone call late in the evening of Election Day 2010, after it became clear that the Republicans would take control of the House, making Boehner Speaker of the House. Nobody in the Obama orbit could even find the soon-to-be-speaker's phone number, Woodward reports. A Democratic Party aide finally secured it through a friend so the president could offer congratulations.
With the president taking charge, though, Obama found that he had little history with members of Congress to draw on. His administration's early decision to forego bipartisanship for the sake of speed around the stimulus bill was encapsulated by his then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel: "We have the votes. F--- 'em," he's quoted in the book as saying.
Obama's relationship with Democrats wasn't always much better. Woodward recounts an episode early in his presidency when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were hammering out final details of the stimulus bill.
Obama phoned in to deliver a "high-minded message," he writes. Obama went on so long that Pelosi "reached over and pressed the mute button on her phone," so they could continue to work without the president hearing that they weren't paying attention.
As debt negotiations progressed, Democrats complained of being out of the loop, not knowing where the White House stood on major points. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is described as having a "growing feeling of incredulity" as negotiations meandered.
"The administration didn't seem to have a strategy. It was unbelievable. There didn't seem to be any core principles," Woodward writes in describing Van Hollen's thinking.
One important moment in the negotiations came when the president scheduled a major address on the nation's long-term debt crisis. A White House staffer thought to invite House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., along with the other two House Republicans who had served on the Simpson-Bowles debt commission.
The president delivered a blistering address, taking apart the Ryan budget plan as "changing the basic social compact in America." Ryan left the speech "genuinely ripped," Woodward writes, feeling that Obama was engaged in "game-on demagoguery" rather than trying to work with the new Republican majority.
"I can't believe you poisoned the well like that," Ryan told Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling on his way out of the speech.
The president told Woodward that he wasn't aware that Ryan was in the audience, and he called inviting him there "a mistake."
If he had known, Obama told Woodard, "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… We made a mistake."
Woodward portrays a president who remained a supreme believer in his own powers of persuasion, even as he faltered in efforts to coax congressional leaders in both parties toward compromise. Boehner told Woodward that at one point, when Boehner voiced concern about passing the deal they were working out, the president reached out and touched his forearm.
"John, I've got great confidence in my ability to sway the American people," Boehner quotes the president as having told him.
Frustration over the lack of clear White House planning was voiced to Obama's face at one point, with a Democratic congressional staffer taking the extraordinary step of confronting the president in the Oval Office.
With the nation facing the very real possibility of defaulting on its debt for the first time in its history, David Krone, the chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told the president directly that he couldn't simply reject the only option left to Congress.
"It is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B," Krone said, according to Woodward.