Four years ago, when Barack Obama stood in front of fake Greek columns before a massive outdoor crowd in Denver to accept his party’s nomination for the office of president, millions of Americans expected him to deliver hope, change, and a brilliant presidency that would solve the nation’s ills. Tonight, when he speaks to a much smaller indoor gathering in Charlotte, most of these people would settle for a competent presidency.
They haven’t received that presidency so far, a point that Bob Woodward reportedly drives home in his new book “The Price of Politics.” The book describes the 2011 showdown over the federal debt ceiling that nearly led to a default by the United States on its debt.
According to Woodward, Obama vastly overestimated his ability to out-bargain John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House. He told top aides that Boehner was “just like a Republican state Senator,” the type he had successfully dealt with in Illinois. “He’s a golf-playing, cigar smoking, country club Republican, who’s there to make deals,” Obama arrogantly assured his staff.
Due, perhaps, to this overconfidence, Obama tried to roll Boehner. After negotiating $800 billion in revenue-raising concessions from the Speaker, Obama called for $400 billion more, late in the day. In response to Obama’s bad faith, Boehner stopped taking the president’s calls and then pulled out of the negotiations. When Boehner notified Obama of this, the president was furious. Apparently, only Democrats played hardball in Obama’s Illinois.
Joe Biden, who if nothing else at least has some idea of how things operate in Washington, took a dim view of Obama’s approach to the debt ceiling negotiations. He told Eric Cantor, “You know, if I were doing this, I’d do it totally different.”
Different doesn’t mean better, especially in Biden’s case. Yet, according to Woodward, it was Biden’s work with Sen. McConnell that brought about the legislation deal that, though it only kicks the can down the road in an odd and dangerous way, staved off default. Maybe Clint Eastwood had it right: Joe Biden is “the intellect of the Democratic Party.”
Obama’s lack of leadership wasn’t confined to dealing with Republicans. According to Woodward, Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Chris Van Hollen all found fault with Obama during the process of enacting the 2009 stimulus legislation. He recounts an episode early in his presidency when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were hammering out final details of the stimulus bill. Obama phoned in to deliver a “high-minded message,” but Obama went on so long that Pelosi “reached over and pressed the mute button on her phone,” so they could continue to work without the president hearing that they weren’t paying attention.
As debt negotiations progressed, Democrats complained of not knowing where the White House stood on major points. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is described as having a “growing feeling of incredulity” as negotiations meandered.
“The administration didn’t seem to have a strategy. It was unbelievable. There didn’t seem to be any core principles,” Woodward writes in describing Van Hollen’s opinion. Actually, Obama doesn’t lack core principles. But they are too radical and ambitious to guide him on workaday questions about stimulus legislation.
Boehner’s assessment of the president lines up well with Van Hollen’s:
They never had their act together. The president, I think, was ill-served by his team. Nobody in charge, no process. I just don’t know how the place works. To this day, I can’t tell you how the place works. There’s no process for making a decision in this White House. There’s nobody in charge.
Nobody except the man who considers himself a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, more knowledgeable about policy than his policy directors, and a better political director than his political director.