56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2012
Bob Woodward's "The Price of Politics" covers the run up and aftermath of the 2011 federal debt limit debacle. I just finished reading the book and want to share my immediate impressions.
Woodward's writing is what I would call reportorial. He takes care to avoid coloring sentences with unnecessary and potentially misleading adjectives. Description is kept to a minimum in the narrative. As a result, the reader must rely on the dialog and recollections of the subjects, some of whom express themselves better than others. I found it helpful to pause at various dates and think about what I was doing at the time and what I recalled about the issues and people involved.
For example, I realized I had developed a strong negative impression of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. I was surprised that he seemed more reasonable and less ideological in the book. Similarly, I was surprised and impressed with Joe Biden's role. In the popular media, he has been relegated to "class clown" status.
Other take-aways: Congress is all about politics and little about policy. Also, we don't have a do-nothing Congress. These men and women are working very hard. But accomplishment is the prize and there is very little of that to go around. And nobody works longer or harder than the staffs of these elected officials.
Woodward's reputation and singular access in the halls of power provide his readers with important, actionable insights. The story is harrowing. The serious national issues continue to fester. Many of the people in "The Price of Politics" are up for reelection and your vote may change after reading it.
154 of 172 people found the following review helpful
The Price of Politics by Bob Woodward
"The Price of Politics" is an even-handed book about the handling of the economic crisis under the Obama administration. It examines the struggle between President Obama and the U.S. Congress to manage federal spending and tax policy during his tenure. Associate editor at the Washington Post for 41 years and author extraordinaire, Bob Woodward has provided the reader with a forthright, blunt examination of this administration's handling of the economy. This insightful 448-page book is composed of forty unnamed chapters.
1. Excellent prose, great insight from an accomplished author of Woodward's caliber.
2. Cast of characters provided, masterful ability to narrate the interactions between all the players. One thing that stands out about this over books of this ilk is the ability of Woodward to capture not only the issues regarding policy but the human element. The emotions, the ups and downs, the inner workings of dealing with complicated issues that have a direct impact on American lives and their own political careers.
3. In many ways this book provides a character study of the two main characters of this book: President Obama and Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Woodward did a remarkable job of being as fair as possible and in several instances acknowledged where the accounts may have differed. The main players don't come out smelling like roses either; there are many thorns along the way.
4. President Obama's shortcomings particularly dealing with the business community and the failings of congressional Republicans.
5. Timely political topic in the hands of an accomplished author with access. He treats the subject matter with utmost respect.
6. A forthright, even-handed book that takes no prisoners. It's about the story; it's about capturing what actually happened and not about inserting oneself into the story.
7. The author's ability to penetrate the political haze and get to the bottom of the stories. The ability to work through all the interviews, notes and observations and make reasonable and fair assessments is a rare skill indeed.
8. The key issues of taxes and entitlement reform in details. Each party makes it clear where they stand. Republicans would not budge on tax increases while Democrats had big issues with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Furthermore, the Republican stance that revenue can be generated via tax reform ala Reagan.
9. The long and I mean long tortuous ways of budget negotiations. Insight into Washington deal making and the importance of leverage. The president's stance of being opposed to a short-term deal. The political implications.
10. The unthinkable prospect of a debt default. The real scoop on raising the debt limit. The debates over the debt ceiling and matters of leverage. The implications.
11. The issue of letting the tax cuts expire and the implications.
12. How legislative deals are usually handled versus how they were actually attempted.
13. The partisan divide from the inside. A look at what drives each party and what drives each player. Also the inner dynamics of party members, Cantor versus Boehner.
14. The practical partisan divide. That is, the issues of contention regarding federal spending and how each party would tackle the problems. The depth of the divide is captured in numbers and sentiments. The art of splitting hairs...spin.
15. Captures the presidential struggle to "dominate" Congress, to give the appearance of having control.
16. The battle of the plans.
17. The failure of the supercommittee...the result of ideological rigidity.
18. Links worked like a charm. Well cited.
1. The book is very detailed, excruciating so at times which actually lends to its credibility but it's also repetitious. How many times and ways do I have to read that the Democrats won't do hard things on entitlements until the Republicans are willing to raise taxes/revenues?
2. No formal bibliography though to be fair this book was based mainly on interviews, notes and observations.
3. Charts and illustrations would have added value. Mr. Woodward's intent in this was mainly to capture the emotions behind the inner-workings of handling federal spending and tax policy and not to interfere with the narration but this could have been accomplished via appendices.
4. There are forty unnamed chapters which makes it difficult to jump or refer back to a chapter of interest.
5. There are sections of this book that will test the patience of the reader which reflects on the frustrations of dealing with the budgetary process. All the games and the posturing.
In summary, this book is an even-handed examination of handling federal spending. Mr. Woodward's ability to relay a story in minute details is impressive and captures the essence of the political struggle from both parties to handle the economy. Where this book excels is relaying the inner workings between the main characters, the back and forth, the prodding, the emotions involved, the incessant amount of meetings, in short the handling of complicated and stressful negotiations, it's really about the political dynamics of negotiation. That being said, the book will test your patience. The incessant back and forth over the same issues may tire you out but reflects the budgetary process and the partisan divide. The book will upset you, frustrate you no matter what side of the political aisle you are on but it will provide you with rare insights into the politics of federal spending and tax policy. It's a book that is definitely worth reading with reservations duly noted.
Further recommendations: "Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget" by David Wessel, "The Benefit and The Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take" by Bruce Bartlett, "White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You" by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, "End This Depression Now!" by Paul Krugman, "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class" by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, "Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else" by David Cay Johnston, "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future" by Robert B. Reich, "Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (Vintage)" by Jeff Madrick, "The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street" by Robert Sheer, "The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality" by Richard Heinberg and "The Crash Course" by Chris Martenson. All these books have been reviewed by yours truly, check for my tag, "Book Shark Review".
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2012
This book has something for everyone, no matter what your point of view. It will open up your eyes to how bad things are in Washington. The author, Bob Woodward captures the budget events of 2011 in almost sickening detail. He goes about doing that much the way he describes foreign policy events in his other books. He puts you in the room with the principle leaders.
The book provides a blow by blow event of the budget and debt negotiations between Congress and the President in 2011. You learn about the various motivations and pressures that motivated each party and the White House. This description of events is much like a sporting event. This side offers this, the other side offers that and so on and so on. The down side of this method is you miss some of the big picture of events. You won't be able to see the forest through the trees kind of situation.
That blow by blow routine does get a little boring through the first part of it. Stick with it, the ending makes it all worth the work. I think a reader will gain a lot through the book. That is where your eyes will open through the collective story.
You will learn about the various personalities on both sides via what they did and a little through what they say in the book. I think you will learn things about people that the media and PR consultants miss. This side of them will shock you and not sit with your preset ideas.
You will also leave the book feeling a bit depressed. The book will make you re-look at those events of 2011. You will have to make your own analysis. Bob is sort of weak on that description. You realize how close we all came to disaster back then. The news then made it seem like everyone involved wanted the 11th hour deal for theatrics. The book makes you realize that deal was by luck, not by intent.
Through the book you will think we are in trouble. The book makes it very clear how difficult the budget situation is. Both sides were unable to come to a deal due to several political reasons. It is like democracy may have come to an end. It seems each party's collective pride prevents us from coming to a collective deal.
I found there were two big things that jumped out of the book. One was the description of the White House and President Obama. Bob Woodward's own words said "It seems no one is in charge". Any reader will pick that up when you read it. It seems that policy was all over the map. Points were changing all the time. For example in the book after the President gets a deal with the Speaker he calls back and ups the stakes. That killed a deal. The other fact is how the nature of the budget problem evolves around various sacred cows of medicare, social security, and other programs. That was all that the negotiators talked about. That is where all of the money is. People tend to talk about about the easy things like parties in Vegas but that isn't where the money is. The big issues is what is tying up the country and seem not to be able to be fixed.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Woodward begins this 2012 book by saying, "This book examines the struggle between President Obama and the United States Congress to manage federal spending and tax policy for the three and one half years between 2009 and the summer of 2012. More than half the book focuses on the intense 44-day crisis in June and July 2011 when the United States came to the brink of a potentially catastrophic default on its debt." (Pg. xiii)
At a January 2009 meeting with Republican congressional leaders, President Obama told Eric Cantor, "I can go it alone... but I want to come together. Look at the polls. The polls are pretty good for me right now... Elections have consequences... And Eric, I won... So on that, I trump you." (Pg. 14) About the 2009 stimulus bill, Woodward notes that "whenever any Republican tried to make changes, [Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel's response was... 'We have the votes. F__k 'em.' This was the bulldozing that Obama had promised to avoid." (Pg. 16)
He notes, "What really surprised Cantor, though, was how badly the White House had played what should have been a winning hand... he had unified and energized the losers. Not only had he missed the opportunity to get the Republicans into the boat with him, he had actually pushed them away. The failure was one of human relations. There had been no sincere contact, no inclusiveness, no real listening." (Pg. 22) But after the 2010 midterm elections, he observes, "But when you need friends, it's too late to make them... The tables had turned. They had the votes." (Pg. 61)
Later, he interprets Paul Ryan's reaction to an Obama speech: "This was what he called 'game-on demagoguery.' Ryan's worst suspicions about the president were realized: Obama wasn't just phoning it in for [Nancy] Pelosi and [Harry] Reid, he really believed this stuff... Ryan felt betrayed. He'd expected an olive branch. What he got was the finger." (Pg. 104, 106) Woodward records, "Obama's inner circle knew that ... a large number of Boehner's rank and file---the extreme Tea Partiers---were dangerously irresponsible... 'I have some sympathy for him.' the president repeated. 'You see how crazy these people are.... His motivation is pure... He just can't control the forces in his caucus now.'" (Pg. 135)
Woodward concludes, "The debt limit crisis was a time of peril for the United States... you cannot help but conclude that neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled it particularly well... Rather than fixing the problem, they postponed it... President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. But presidents work their will... Obama has not... Americans are now left with a still struggling economy in the midst of a presidential election. It is a world of the status quo, only worse." (Pg. 378-380)
Primarily critical of the Obama administration, although sometimes also of the Republican leadership, this is a detailed (sometimes TOO much so) account that will be of interest to political junkies overwhere.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2012
Woodward combines extensive secondary source research and his own interviews with high-level players to painstakingly recreate the back and forth of the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. The book is extremely valuable as an early account of the effort necessary to avoid a default. Woodward is balanced and allows politicians and staffers from both sides of the discussion to have their say throughout the book, and Woodward synthesizes their frustrations into a few basic themes: Obama was at times a less than forceful and decisive leader, and Boehner had extreme difficulties convincing his fiercefully-obstinate party to accept increased revenues from taxes.
Woodward claims to have spared readers from the "mind-numbing written offers and counteroffers" (p. 378), but the book still reads very tediously at times. The same basic pattern is repeated each chapter: a meeting-by-meeting, phone call-by-phone call account is given of the negotiations and then the chapter will close with backward-looking reflections from later conducted interviews with either Obama or Boehner. The result is either a work of artistic genius (the reader's exhaustion mirrors that experienced by the debt ceiling negotiators) or the product of an unwillingness to fit this episode into a broader perspective (Woodward mentions Reagan, Clinton, and other past W.H.-Congress showdowns only in passing).
The lasting impressions from the book are the individual portraits of Obama, Boehner, Cantor, Reid, and Biden. How these individiuals think and act became much more interesting than the sometimes monotonous retelling of events. Those who are rabidly interested in politics will love the entire book, but other readers will at least enjoy the up close and personal interactions of our current political leaders.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2014
Only hardcore political nerds will read this one. That just so happens to be me. It’s a shame that most Americans will never sit down to read a book like this because only then can they really have a chance at grasping why next to nothing is getting accomplished by this Congress. In true Woodward fashion, it tells the facts without taking sides.
If you want to understand why we have gridlock in DC that is the worst in the history of our country, you can find that here.
If you want to a better understanding as to why the Republican Party is imploding from within, you can find that here. (Spoiler: temper tantrums abound!)
If you want to pull your hair out ok frustration because some folks still say “but both sides do it!” here is a long list of reasons showing that’s not exactly true.
Don’t read this book if you’re looking for tips in how to maneuver through DC politics. This book is more of a study in character through the facts and actions of those we’ve elected to office.
Both sides of the aisle need to stop with the “I’m taking my ball and going home” meltdowns because they were left out of the loop on meeting or because their egos weren’t stroked JUST right.
Overall, as we know going in, Woodward once again complies a factual, well researched piece that pulls back the curtain on policy and pomp in Washington.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I bought this book because I wanted some clear and straight-forward information about the US fiscal situation, and how it came to be. I am frankly tired of all the sound-bite information that is overwhelmingly available, and most importantly, I wanted the information in the context of the process down in Washington. And I wanted it from a source that I respect. This book absolutely fits the bill, spanning 2009 to mid-2012.
As Bob Woodward notes in the very beginning: "Nearly all the information in this book comes from interviews with key White House and congressional officials. Some provided documents, contemporaneous meeting notes, working papers, diaries, emails, transcripts and chronologies. Democrats and Republicans co-operated in about equal amounts."
What is remarkable is that Mr. Woodward injects almost none of his own opinion into the chronology. Anyone who has ever participated in a complex negotiation can easily dive right in and get drawn into reading for long stretches. As Mr. Woodward concludes: "There was so much effort, most of it sincere, but so little result." The picture painted from 2009 to this year is one of congressional leadership wondering how much support they can get from their caucuses as they work their way through various proposed deals. Likewise, there are secret offers, secret parallel negotiations, and attempts to retrade deals that were made. The current presidential election as a looming deadline casts a pall over much of the process. The ultimate directive of serving the people and advancing the interests of the United States seem to be lost in the process. This is how you get to a point where the House passes a year-long extension to the payroll tax cut, and the leadership is then castigated because it doesn't support a 2 month extension instead. Convoluted, ineffective, and detrimental to the US and its people. There is a severe shortage of leadership in Washington.
This is an important book that every citizen really should read. I have recommended it time and time again.
Thank you, Mr. Woodward.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2012
Terrific book that details the seven months of the debt negotiations between the White House and the Congress.
The President was unable to keep any decision made with the Congress. The public is not aware
of the lack of experience shown by the White House staff and the President. There was no Plan A
or Plan B.
The spin was that the Republicans were stonewalling but there was no give by the Democratsl....
the Republicans agreed to a tax hike but wanted equal cuts in domestic spending. The Democrats
would agree and then withdraw their commitment to cuts. Thus nothing happened. This went on
for seven months. I think Woodward who was seemingly a liberal commentator on current events
became shocked by the inability of the Obama administration to govern.
274 of 379 people found the following review helpful
Woodward is evenhanded. He paints the personalities in Washington as they are, and is evenhanded and balanced in his treatment of both Republicans and Democrats. The problems they face are large. The greatest of these is the perennial problem of government, balancing the budget. This is something that transcends America and transcends our time.
The major story in the book is the debt crisis negotiations of 2011. They showcase the differences between the parties and the degree to which each party must cater to its political base.
It is also the story of a president who arrived in office with a minimum of experience with the political process. Though Woodward is more restrained than other critics, such as Ron Suskind in "Confidence Men," Obama comes through here again as a man who is simply out of his depth. He does not have a command of the issues, and more important, does not have enough fundamental knowledge about economics, history and American politics to effectively lead the political process. The lack of unity on the Democratic side of the aisle, in particular his failure to build a working relationship with Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, betray his lack of experience working with people.
The book reveals flashes of the arrogance which others attribute to him. More significant, these qualities infused his team, from Valery Jarrett to Larry Summers to Rahm Emanuel. There was little compromise in the makeup of any of them. Woodward reveals the raw, tactless way in which they wielded power their first two years, and how their high-handedness came back to bite them after the 2010 midterm elections. Mainly, however, it is a story of a man with no executive experience thrust into the world's most demanding executive position. He didn't have the tools to do the job, and was too self-absorbed to see his own shortcomings. In one of the most telling passages of the book, Valery Jarrett chews John Boehner out for saying that Obama was willing to learn. She assumed he already knew all that was necessary.
Fiscal irresponsibility is the downfall of almost every government and every currency over the long course of history. Governments have three sources of revenue. They can tax, they can borrow, and they can inflate it away their debts. This book picks up our story when the US had long ago lost its ability to balance the budget through taxes, and was running out of borrowing power. The major players in the book, most Republicans and some Democrates (Geithner, Orzag) realized that it was essential to rein in the government deficits.
Any solution must take into consideration increasing revenue and decreasing expenses. However, the expenses have been written into law in such an insidious way, as entitlements in terms of both Medicare and Social Security, that they cannot be easily taken away because such a large portion of the electorate has come to depend on these entitlements. As of now more than half of the population is dependent on federal handouts. They simply cannot be taken away, because people have forgotten how to exist without them. And the people who pay the tab, the wealthier half, the slight minority who actually pay income taxes, are unwilling to pay anymore. We do not have the political unity within the country needed to make the necessary budget compromises.
Woodward describes the situation fairly clearly, but a man in his position cannot honestly analyze the reasons for the great divide. The Republicans and the Democrats represent increasingly different constituencies. The Republicans, on balance, represent average taxpayers. The Democrats represent the bottom and top layers of society: The academics who increasingly control the media and entertainment sectors are on the top, and the minorities and recipients of government benefits on the bottom.
It is widely agreed that there is a difference a growing gap between the two, between the well-paid and the not so well paid. We observed at the same time that there is a continual expansion in gaps in various measures of achievement between these groups, notably academic and financial success, and at the same time there is an increasing demand in society in the workplace for highly skilled workers. It is quite natural that there would be a divergence. The bulk of our workforce is less and less skilled, and yet the demands of the workplace call for more and more skills. It only makes sense that the people who can do work that is valued, a decreasing minority, earn more and the bulk of the people earn less.
However the political process cannot recognize this reality. They talk about moving jobs offshore. Of course this is true - the workers offshore, notably the Chinese, demand far less in hourly wages. What goes unstated is that they are also more productive. And that their productivity is related to Chinese intelligence, which is by most measures higher than that of the average American worker. They certainly have a strong work ethic honed by years of hanging on merely to survive.
We have therefore as American society that is becoming increasingly fragmented as it becomes more diverse. It was heading toward the model of such multiethnic societies as Brazil, the Andean nations split between Native American and European populations, and South Africa and Zimbabwe, and perhaps Italy, considering the divide between the Mezzogiorno and the North. In any case we are a multiethnic society in which the levels of achievement among the various groups vary quite widely, always have, and show no signs of converging. It is not a recipe for success.
This is an aside, but it is an important background to the facts which Woodward reports. The Republicans and the Democrats in Congress represent increasingly different constituencies. The fact that they cannot compromise easily is due in large part to the fact that their constituencies are irreconcilable. Rather, the demands of the various constituencies are irreconcilable. One of the reasons that this is so is that nobody is willing to recognize the truth of the situation.
The truth of the situation is that American labor is worth less on the world market than it used to be. Other nations have caught up. Another truth is that different people have different levels of ability. That observation goes against the grain of American history, American culture, and certainly the diversity story as taught in schools. So we cannot accept reality, and we are increasingly the victims of our cognitive dissonance.
Another factor, one which Woodward does acknowledge, is the changing age demographics of America. The four biggest parts of the budget are defense spending, Medicare, Social Security, and welfare payments such as food stamps and long term unemployment. Obama did rein in military spending by taking troops out of Afghanistan. However, he reports that the Democrats were unable to address the ongoing liabilities concerning Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. These are unbounded liabilities which all players recognize will lead to deficits for the foreseeable future. They are unpredictable and unbounded, as the nature of medical technologies and the demand for medical care simply cannot be predicted. The only thing one can say with certainty is that every prediction in the past has turned out to be too optimistic.
The Republicans lack the will to ask their constituency to pay more taxes, and Democrats lack the will to aks for reasonable cutbacks in entitlements. This problems are more than a lack of leadership - it is fundamental unwillingness on the part of the American people to accept the truth. Churchill observed that America will do the right thing - when all else has failed.
We did not resolve the debt crisis. Throughout the Obama administration the politicians "kicked the can down the road." We are not alone in this. The Europeans have done no better. They have given the Federal Reserve no choice but to print more and more money through Quantative Easing, a story better told in "Confidence Men." The result will be a major depression, one which many believe has alreadys begun. The iron fist of reality will impose a resolution to resource distribution problems which could not be resolved by politics. For seniors, minorities and others who benefit disproportionated from government largess the process will be ugly and painful and probably, at times, fraught with violence. If we were smarter it could have been otherwise. Woodward does not attribute a lack of brains to any of the players in this tragedy. Instead, just as in a Greek drama, each is constrained by his own party and his own human failings. Obama's tragedy is that he doesn't seem even to recognize his shortcomings.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2012
I've read all of Woodward's books. They are all incredibly detailed. This one is a bit of a chore to get through unless you are a policy wonk. But the message is so important. Here is what I came away with: coming from a guy like Woodward, a left leaning journalist, this was difficult. But he clearly questions Obama's ability to be President, based on his spectacular failure in negotiating an agreement that would avoid the fiscal cliff. He does not spare Boehner or others, but it's hard to see how anyone who reads this could support feckless and arrogant Obama for a second term. As I write this it is 3 days before the election, so maybe that is how it will turn out. But the Lear message is that this guy is too self absorbed to really see things through others eyes and reach compromise like so many great presidents have.