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Bob Woodward on ‘The Price of Politics,’ Fiscal Fight Over the Debt Ceiling

September 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In summer 2011, a partisan Congress sparred with the White House on how to solve the U.S. debt crisis. Judy Woodruff talks to journalist Bob Woodward about his new book, "The Price of Politics," about how Washington's politicians couldn't look past their own political aspirations in order to forge a deal.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, we turn from presidential politics to the related topic of partisan gridlock in Washington.

Yesterday, I sat down with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodruff He’s written 17 books that look inside the White House, Congress, and other branches of American government.

He’s back this month with “The Price of Politics,” chronicling the failure of the president and congressional leaders last year to reach a grand bargain on how to attack the budget deficit and the debt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when you started working on this book, what was it that you wanted to capture?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, it’s clear that the economy is the issue, impacts everyone.

And leading up to a presidential election this year, I mean, it’s obvious that — what happened?

What — and you find when you do these books, the news coverage is excellent, but it runs by history. And you have to go back and say, OK, let’s get the meeting notes. Let’s get the documents, do the extensive interviews, so you do a full excavation of what really happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was it about that — it was pretty much a six-week period that you mainly focus on in the middle of 2011.

BOB WOODWARD: Yes, about half the book is that, last summer, the struggle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why that period?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, because that’s when we were at the edge of the cliff.

And if there was a default — as the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, told the president, if we don’t fix this, if we don’t come to sort of even a superficial agreement, we could trigger a global meltdown, a depression that would be worse than the 1930s.

And the impact on everyone would be giant.

And he also said, this isn’t just a political or an economic decision you have to make. It’s a moral choice you’re faced — if we have a default, it’s going to hurt the people at the low end of the economic spectrum the most, because they’re least able to deal with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s an example of a mistake made on both sides? Clearly, they didn’t reach an agreement. And I want to ask you about the president in particular in a minute.

But — well, let me ask you first, the congressional side, what was the mistake they made?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, that there is a war going on in the Republican Party, which I document here, where Speaker Boehner and his deputy, Eric Cantor, don’t see eye to eye on lots of things, that Cantor is tied much more to the extreme conservative wing, the Tea Party people.

And at one point where Boehner looks like he’s considering adding more revenue to the deal, more taxes, he calls Cantor down, and Cantor’s chief of staff, not Cantor, but his chief of staff asks the speaker, how many votes do you think you can get for this? And the speaker says, about 170.

And the chief of staff, a staffer, says, you’re crazy. And Cantor backs up the chief of staff. They think he can only get 50 votes for it.

And that’s when Boehner goes into this period of about a day when he won’t return the president’s phone calls. So there is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a very dramatic few days there.

BOB WOODWARD: Yes. And it’s just not — you know, and it’s — even last — you know, this summer as they’re trying to figure out things, the super committee is working, or in the beginning period of the Obama presidency, you see these struggles and in the end the politics driving it.

And that’s part of the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also make it clear, Bob Woodward, though, that you think the main responsibility lies with the president, because you said he’s the president, it’s on his shoulders.

What was it that he could have done and should have done differently?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, first of all, presidents have to work their will.

They have to solve problems. And the Republicans are a brick wall, with a cement wall behind it, with a steel girder behind that.

But you have to find some way to break through or get around that to solve the big problems.

And the president engaged, worked hard on it, very sincere, but you look at the details of this, some of the negotiations, some of the proposals were made impulsively by telephone.

And no one else is talking on the extension, as best I can tell, when the president is talking to the speaker and asking for more revenue.

And there is a monumental miscommunication here that sets the whole thing off. There’s no fallback position. The treasury secretary really is running around shouting: Fire. We are going to do something that will last for generations if we don’t fix it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And can you put your finger on what it was that President Obama didn’t have or didn’t do?

BOB WOODWARD: He doesn’t have the relations with these people.

For instance, specifically, Joe Biden has this relationship with Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader. He’s known in the West Wing, Biden is, as the McConnell whisperer, the person who can deal with McConnell.

They have known each other for decades. They don’t agree on things, but it’s the kind of old deal-making philosophy, one for you, one for me.

And at key points in this three-and-a-half year period, it’s Biden who comes and bails the administration and the president out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have reported on presidents since Richard Nixon, obviously, going back to Watergate.

I have talked to other folks who have covered other presidents who talk about this is such a difficult time historically, intransigent, poisonous relationships. Can anyone lead in these circumstances?

BOB WOODWARD: Bill Clinton says, well, no one could fix this fully. And, you know, you can make a case for that.

But it depends on your expectation. If our expectations are such that, oh, there’s gridlock, and you can’t get around it, then we aren’t going to solve the problems. There are all kinds of difficult things out there.

Getting and tracking Osama bin Laden was tough. It took 10 years to do it, but they did it.

And the problem with all of these economic debates is — and people think, well, it’s about a budget or it’s about creditworthiness and so forth. No, it’s about this country’s balance sheet. We have $13 trillion of IOUs out in the world, and we’re going to have to go borrow more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if this president is reelected, is it your view that these are skills that he can pick up and have in a second term, or is it — or is it just something you either have or you don’t have?

BOB WOODWARD: There are big themes here, but also there are big lessons.

And Obama’s quite smart and adaptable. I think he feels that, if he’s reelected, he would be re-legitimized and be able to do things in the second term. He may have to do things in the second term.

Let’s remember, he recently gave himself on these issues an incomplete.

If we have him here — you know, he’s in a political campaign, and he’s going to say, look, I have done this and that. And he has done this and that.

But he didn’t take it over the finish line. And everyone in this country is in peril, frankly, because we do not have a government that can fix these problems. And the president is the one — you know, the buck stops there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In this term or a second one, if there is one.

The book is “The Price of Politics.”

Bob Woodward, thanks very much.