Struggling with the art of the possible


US POLITICS: DENIS STAUNTONreviews The Price of Politics By BobWoodward Simon and Schuster, 448pp. £20

WHAT WENT WRONG with Barack Obama’s presidency? If he wins a second term in November, it will be because this luckiest of politicians faces in Mitt Romney the most inept Republican challenger since Bob Dole rather than because voters want to reward him for a job well done. Within months of taking office amid a surge of euphoria, Obama saw his job-approval rating sink below 50 per cent, and it has stayed there for most of the time since.

Almost four years after he took office, US unemployment remains high, median incomes are falling and the economy remains sluggish. Despite a promise made on his first day in the White House, Obama has failed to close the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, and although US forces withdrew from Iraq on the timetable approved by George W Bush, they remain bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Obama’s most trumpeted foreign-policy achievement is the extrajudicial killing of Osama bin Laden, and his top domestic-policy triumph is the passage of a healthcare bill drafted in conjunction with the health-insurance industry.

The president could never have fulfilled the wilder expectations of some of his admirers, many of whom were happy to believe that his election marked, in his own words, “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. He inherited two wars, an economy in the grip of the worst recession since the Great Depression and a politically polarised Congress, but Obama’s own political incompetence and personal style have contributed to his failure to take control of the political agenda in Washington.

In The Price of Politics, his second book on Obama’s presidency, Bob Woodward portrays a dysfunctional White House and a president who “simply didn’t understand how Congress worked and didn’t know how to negotiate”. Since he won fame 40 years ago by uncovering, with Carl Bernstein, the Watergate scandal, Woodward has become the chronicler-in-chief of American presidents. His method is to pile detail upon detail, using mostly unnamed sources to reconstruct meetings and conversations and sometimes even describing the thoughts running through his protagonists’ minds.

In Obama’s Wars, Woodward recounted the infighting in the White House over the war in Afghanistan and the way that Obama was manoeuvred by military commanders and his administration’s national-security hawks into approving the deployment of tens of thousands more troops. The Price of Politics describes months of negotiations between the White House and Congress last year over raising the debt ceiling, the limit imposed by Congress on how much the federal government can borrow. Although the book’s granular discussion of budgets and tax codes can be tedious, through the detail there emerges a vivid picture of an aloof president who disdains the business of politics in Washington but who lacks a clear ideological direction and whose political principles are hard to discern.

Raising the debt ceiling is usually a routine move in Washington, but congressional Republicans, who had regained control of the House of Representatives in November 2010, decided to use the vote as leverage to force Obama to adopt some of their policies. Many of the new Republican intake were fiscal zealots, close to the Tea Party movement, who were determined to reduce the government deficit dramatically without increasing taxes. That would mean deep cuts in government programmes cherished by Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress and his political base throughout the country.

Faced with a deeply divided Congress, Obama and the new Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner, agreed to pursue a “grand bargain” – a combination of spending cuts and tax increases that would have resolved the deficit issue for the next decade. Obama and Boehner, an unideological Republican who achieved notoriety in 1995 when he was spotted distributing cheques from a tobacco lobbyist to congressmen on the floor of the house, initially appeared to get along well.

“All you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking Merlot, and I look across the table and here is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette,” Boehner told Woodward, describing one of their meetings at the White House.

Obama and Boehner never agreed their grand bargain, partly because the speaker was unable to take his Republican colleagues with him but also because Obama bungled the negotiations, alienating key congressional figures and finally sinking any prospect of a deal with a last-minute demand for an extra $400 billion in tax increases. When Republicans finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling, it was on the basis of an agreement that simply postponed the difficult decisions. Woodward quotes Larry Summers, an economic adviser to Obama who served as treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, describing the difference in the two presidents’ negotiating styles. “Obama doesn’t really have the joy of the game,” Summers said. “Clinton basically loved negotiating with a bunch of pols, about anything . . . whereas Obama, he really didn’t like these guys.”

Obama’s aloofness also helped to alienate many leading US business figures, who are accustomed to being flattered and wooed by presidents. Ivan Seidenberg, chief executive of the telecoms giant Verizon, was pleased to be invited to watch a football game at the White House but outraged when Obama spent only a few seconds talking to him before going off to sit with his friends. Seidenberg later became one of Obama’s loudest critics and a fundraiser for congressional Republicans. Woodward concludes that, although there is plenty of blame to go round between the White House and Congress, Obama’s handling of the debt crisis represents a serious failure.

“It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition,” he writes. “But presidents work their will – or should work their will – on the important matters of national business . . . Obama has not.”

Republicans complain that his handling of the debt negotiations revealed Obama to be a traditional Democratic partisan who failed to follow through on his campaign rhetoric about ending gridlock in Washington. Summers, however, suggests a more plausible explanation for Obama’s failure, blaming what he nicely calls the president’s “excessive pragmatism” for his apparent inability to take a line and stick with it.

“I don’t think anybody has a sense of his deep feelings about things,” Summers says. “I don’t think anybody has a sense of his deep feelings about people. I don’t think people have a sense of his deep feelings around his public philosophy.”

Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor