Republicans Friday afternoon bludgeoned the administration with an unlikely weapon in the political battle over the impending sequestration: the words of Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist whose exposure of the Watergate scandal in 1972 brought down the Nixon presidency.
As White House press secretary Jay Carney blasted “spin doctors on the Republican side” for spreading the “fanciful concoction” that the White House wanted the sequester, House Republicans deployed a passage from Woodward’s most recent book, The Price of Politics, that tells a different story. According to Woodward, it was then–White House chief of staff Jack Lew who introduced the idea of sequestration into the debt-ceiling negotiations that consumed Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2011. “Reid bent down and put his head between his knees, almost as if he were going to throw up,” Woodward writes.
That, according to both Woodward and Republican lawmakers, is how President Obama strong-armed sequestration into the Budget Control Act of 2011, and why the president today bears responsibility for finding a way out of the problem he created.
In the sequestration battle, the office of House speaker John Boehner is serving as Ground Zero in the GOP’s communications offensive. His aides on Friday circulated a photograph of the incriminating lines from Woodward’s book, which promptly zipped around Capitol Hill. GOP lawmakers on Friday afternoon, at the urging of Boehner’s staffers, replaced their Facebook and Twitter avatars with the photograph. The campaign also includes a Twitter hashtag, #obamaquester, and an attempt to change the way Republicans are talking about the issue. “We’re encouraging people to say ‘President Obama’s sequester,’” says Boehner’s press secretary, Brendan Buck.
“It’s important for people to know that the president was ultimately responsible for conceiving of this idea,” Buck tells National Review Online. “The president has tried to pin [the sequester] on Congress, saying that they came up with it and that they must fix it, when in fact Congress thought this was a terrible mechanism to use,” Buck explains. “This is what the White House insisted on.”
Buck praises Woodward’s book, which provides a play-by-play account of the largely unsuccessful 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations between the White House and House Republicans, as a useful corrective to the White House’s message. Woodward, he says, took the time to “look at the facts, dig deep, and see what really happened,” and worked diligently to set the record straight. “We’re very happy with the way it came out,” Buck says. Woodward, though critical of all of the participants in the 2011 negotiations, ultimately lays the blame at President Obama’s feet, assailing him in particular for displaying a personal arrogance that, in Woodward’s view, may very well have scuttled negotiations.
On a day like today, when the White House warned of the “women and children who would lose vital nutrition assistance” if the sequestration takes effect and placed the burden for averting it squarely on Congress, Woodward’s narrative was particularly useful, and it was evident that Republicans relished the opportunity to wield it against Democrats. “A lot of people tend to take the White House’s word over ours,” Buck says. In the sequestration debate, it may, ironically, be Bob Woodward who prevents that from happening.