Fighting Bob Woodward is an undertaking no administration has attempted. Few journalists garner the admiration and respect Bob Woodward enjoys from the New York-Washington media axis. Journalism graduate students sit in class salivating over Woodward’s work, hoping one day to stumble upon their own Watergate. Woodward has defined the investigative journalism of our age, no matter your perspective. From the Watergate scandal through today, Woodward is a Washington insider to his core. Administrations past feared Woodward’s reporting acumen and tried to court his ear.
This makes Woodward’s recent public spat with White House economic adviser Gene Sperling all the more surprising. Woodward’s claiming he was threatened by an e-mail wherein Sperling wrote that Woodward would “regret” reporting on the sequester as an Obama administration-created disaster faced criticisms from both the administration and fellow journalists. Former L.A. Times reporter Steve Weinstein called Woodward “senile.”
While the e-mail has now been released and Woodward’s “threat” mantra discredited by many, we cannot look beyond the controversy without understanding why Woodward would have spent the better part of the last few weeks on the issue.
My suggestion: frustration. Frustration with a government incapable of solving the vast problems facing the nation. Frustration with a sequestration nobody in Washington imagined would actually happen. Frustration with an administration incapable of playing the political game, necessary to govern, that Woodward has come to understand.
As neither a major proponent of Woodward, nor a real opponent of the sequestration, I can appreciate Woodward’s perspective. Having insider knowledge of the operations of all administrations since Nixon, Woodward can likely see where the Obama administration’s governing strategy is failing. A deeper problem exists in the administration that Woodward’s detractors are missing. Woodward knows that how the White House is operating is causing the dysfunction in Washington that led to the sequester’s creation and, now, implementation, as he discusses in his latest book, The Price of Politics. In recent weeks, Woodward has called Obama’s handling of the sequestration “madness.” He has also claimed Obama “moved the goalposts” in his request that increased revenue be part of any final deal, an untenable proposition.
In an interview with Politico, Woodward said of Obama: “I’m not sure he fully understands the power he has. He sees that the power is the public megaphone going around to these campaign-like events, which is real, but the audience he needs to deal with is on this issue of the sequester and these budget issues is John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.”
Foreshadowed by Woodward’s book last year, The Price of Politics, his frustration with the current administration is well justified. Congress is blamed all the time for the nation’s political woes, but the presidential leadership on the behind-the-scenes politicking to accomplish compromise seems to be missing. Obama’s team appears content with absolving itself from any problems and resorts to blaming Congress. In the final presidential debate last year, Obama said, “the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed.” Politifact found this claim “mostly false,” since Obama’s team effectively created the sequester piece during negotiations on the Budget Control Act in 2011.
At the time, no one imagined sequestration would become reality. The Budget Control Act mandated an equal cut in spending from defense and domestic departments to provide incentive for the bipartisan supercommittee to compromise on and reform the largest drags on our deficit. After the supercommittee failed, there were more opportunities for presidential leadership to prevent sequestration cuts by forging compromise on budgetary issues. Executive branch leadership has come more in the form of scolding Congress than putting forth a plan with a realistic chance of passing. Instead, more than three years have come and gone since the last official budget passed Congress. The deficit continues to balloon, and sequestration will do little to put us back on a track to fiscal solvency.
Viewing these events from inside Washington, Woodward knows the inner workings of the administration in a way few others can grasp. And, he is likely frustrated with how problems and minor annoyances on the inside are contributing to a Washington looking ineffective to the outside world. Individuals in positions of power with very little understanding of the connection between their actions and serious policy implications are Woodward’s primary concern.
Missing from the critiques of Woodward offered by other media types is the stark reality that the Obama administration shares a significant amount of the blame for the sequestration, despite the administration placing fault on congress. Woodward cannot imagine other administrations in the past acting in a similar manner to a serious situation like the sequestration.
Appearing on MSNBC, he criticized the administration for allowing the Defense Department to not deploy the U.S.S. Harry Truman to the Persian Gulf due to the prospective cuts. Woodward asked, “Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?’ Or George W. Bush saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to invade Iraq because I can’t get the aircraft carriers I need?’ Or even Bill Clinton saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to attack Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters,’ … because of some budget document?”
Think about the lunacy of the administration’s responses to the sequestration. Sure, the administration is winning the public battle over the sequestration fight, but real governing needs to happen for any solution to be reached. Judging by the administration’s handling of the nation’s fiscal woes thus far, I would not count on the sequester going away anytime soon. And, that should be frustrating to anyone who cares about politics. Woodward’s reactions to the administration are not “senile” and crazy; they are a proper frustration with the White House’s inability to forge the compromise necessary for a deal to be reached.