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The Price of Politics Hardcover – September 11, 2012
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Woodward’s seventeenth book takes interested readers—and they will need to be very interested—behind closed doors to observe how the nation’s debt crisis developed over the past three-and-a-half years. Copious interviews with major players in this stand-off between the president and congressional Republicans (more than 100 individuals, so the author states) led the author to prepare a you-are-there, fly-on-wall approach to detailing the “struggle...to manage federal spending and tax policy.” The specific focus, and subsequently a big chunk of the book,centers on the 44-day high-stakes negotiations between the two sides in June and July, 2011, a brutal haggling over raising the debt ceiling. The cast in this drama is huge, but of course President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner loom largest upon the stage. These two key players attempted to reach a “grand bargain” that would ease the crisis for some time to come. Woodward’s purpose is to reveal how close they came and why an agreement failed. If readers are looking for an unbiased chronicle of these events, they better look elsewhere. Woodward appears to have walked into the writing of this book ready to lay most of the blame on the president. Some journalists in the know have reported that there is really nothing new here, but political junkies surely will read to the last page. For most readers, though, much of this will be TMI. --Brad Hooper
“A highly detailed dissection of the debt-limit negotiations. … A remarkable achievement. …Woodward, being Woodward, digs deeper and draws more out of the protagonists than anyone else has.” —Jeff Shesol, The Washington Post
"Groundbreaking" —David Gregory, NBC's Meet the Press
"Takes us inside the room once again." —Charlie Rose
"Fabulous book and great reporting." —Norah O'Donnell, CBS This Morning
“Bob Woodward, in characteristic fashion, does his competitors one better by filling in blanks and providing even finer detail.” —Miranda Green, The Daily Beast
"A book everyone is talking about." —Diane Sawyer, ABC
"A very revealing, insightful book." —Sean Hannity, Fox News, "Hannity"
"Required Reading" —Elizabeth Titus, Politico
“Almost every bookshelf in the U.S. capital holds a thin volume called 13 Days, Robert F. Kennedy’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Memo to Washington: Make room on those shelves for Bob Woodward’s latest behind-the-scenes book, The Price of Politics, which might as well have been called 44 Days. The centerpiece is a riveting account of the tedious negotiations to reach a ‘grand bargain’ on the federal budget.” —David M. Shirbman, Bloomberg Businessweek
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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.
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.
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.