Noam Scheiber at TNR,
eviscerating reviewing Bob Woodward as “The Backscratcher“:
… So it goes with The Price of Politics. Critics have complained about the tediousness of this latest Woodward volume, which focuses mostly on the debt-ceiling negotiations between the White House and Republicans during the summer of 2011… But I didn’t find Woodward’s book unusually tedious. In fact, I learned a lot from it. What I found it to be was remarkably slanted.
This was all the more jarring because Woodward is famous for his distinct lack of slant. His books are scrupulously reported but annoyingly literal. At their worst, they read more like stenography than fully hatched stories. The only hint of a worldview he injects is the worldview of the establishment. He reflexively flatters those in power.
So in one sense the book is a departure: it is relentlessly biased against the president. Woodward argues that the White House and Congress failed to reach a major deficit-reduction deal last summer because Obama didn’t provide the necessary leadership, even though this thesis is untethered from Woodward’s own reporting, to say nothing of reality.
But, in another sense, the book is perfectly in sync with Woodward’s oeuvre. There is a body of respectable Washington opinion that considers Obama unworthy of the presidency: he hadn’t put in his time before running, didn’t grasp the majesty of the office, evinced no respect for the way things were done. He not only won without courting the city’s elders, he had the bad manners to keep his distance even after winning. This is the view Woodward distills…
…So, to review, the Republicans were theologically opposed to even the meagerest, mangiest revenue increases—even to the minimum amount of revenue Obama could have gotten without them, even in exchange for trillions of dollars in spending cuts—and yet Obama is somehow to blame for blowing up the deal because … why, exactly? Because he didn’t invite Boehner over for grilled cheese?… This reeks of the frozen-in-amber Sally Quinn lament that politicians don’t spend enough time bantering at Georgetown dinner parties, when in fact there are vast structural forces militating against collegial deal-making. Namely, that national politics has become intensely polarized over the last generation as the parties have sorted themselves along ideological lines. During that same time, the Republican Party has completely lost its marbles, having turned into a collection of anti-tax jidhadis bent on the upward redistribution of wealth. Sadly, the chances of solving that problem with a bit more schmoozing are exceedingly slim.
The irony is that the only way to overcome these massive obstacles is by doing the opposite of what Woodward recommends—by searching for leverage over the other side and exploiting it. Woodward, like any good Georgetown denizen, is scandalized that Obama gave up on bipartisanship in September of 2011 to browbeat Republicans over more stimulus… But, of course, all this attacking resulted in pretty much the only big legislative victory of Obama’s second two years. The Republicans crumpled. Obama signed a payroll extension worth over $100 billion in early 2012.
At this point any reasonable observer would conclude that more, not less, ruthlessness would have helped Obama work his will. Woodward doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he takes yet another opportunity to mourn the passing of the baronial style of congressional back-scratching. “Obama celebrated the bill’s passage on February 21 in the White House’s South Court Auditorium. Surrounded by individuals who would benefit from the payroll tax cut, but no members of Congress, he was the champion of the tax cuts,” Woodward writes. Then he quotes Obama: “With or without Congress, every day I’m going to be continuing to fight for them.” The quote is intended to be damning, of course—what species of cretin would stiff-arm Congress and then crow about it?
In truth, it is damning, except not in the way the author imagines. What’s damning is that the mythology of establishment Washington could exert such a powerful grip on its most famous chronicler. As it happens, “with or without Congress” was the most logical sentiment of Obama’s presidency. He could not be re-elected without it.