Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics has confused many critics because it suggests that one of the reasons our government seems so dysfunctional is that President Obama alienated a number of potential allies early in his presidency. The Washington Post, rather remarkably, assigned a former speechwriter for President Clinton to review the book, and he concludes that it is really the “radicalization of the GOP” that is to blame.
To those of us who don’t believe that congressional Republicans are irrational extremists, Woodward’s account has resonance, e.g., consider the following from Rick Klein of ABC News:
Woodward places particular blame for the failure to reach a deal with Obama, writing that the seeds of discord were planted early in his administration. He displayed “two sides” of his personality in early meetings with congressional leaders, Woodward said.
“There’s this divided-man quality to President Obama always. Initially he meets with the congressional leaders, he says you know, ‘We’re going to be accommodating, we’re going to listen, we’re going to talk, we’re going to compromise,” Woodward said.
“But then they — Republicans ask some questions and challenge him a little bit and he says, ‘Look I won. I’m in charge here,’ ” Woodward continued. “And the Republicans feel totally isolated and ostracized. And this was the beginning of a war.”
A standard interpretation of the Obama years is that Republican obstructionism began almost immediately and war rooted in an unthinking hatred of President Obama, and the evidence for this proposition is that, for example, the 2009 fiscal stimulus law included billions of dollars in refundable tax credits aimed at low- and middle-income households, which is to say tax cuts. Yet Republicans tend to favor durable rather than short-term changes to the tax code and cuts to marginal tax rates, on the premise that cuts to marginal tax rates improve work incentives. This oft-heard critique rests on a non sequitur.
In a similar vein, Republican opposition to President Obama’s coverage expansion effort is often described as central. Yet much of the resistance to the Obama administration’s approach came from congressional Democrats, many of whom felt alienated by what they saw as the president’s heavy-handed approach, and who were concerned that the president had failed to make a convincing case to the public. One can blame the “Republican noise-machine” for this failure, but of course other chief executives have overcome entrenched opponents by outmaneuvering them. Josh Barro often cites New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as an example. Facing determined opposition from Democrats aligned with public sector unions, Gov. Cuomo nevertheless managed to secure significant concessions from his state legislature through a combination of savvy politicking and threats he could back up.
The beauty of the GOP extremism narrative is that it absolves the president of all responsibility. It is entirely immune to questions regarding whether or not President Obama was a sufficiently deft legislative tactician, and if he has ever demonstrated the ability to forge working coalitions. It is strangely apposite that the Obama presidency may well be rescued by the political prowess of Bill Clinton, a man who served as governor of Arkansas during the Reagan era and thus became well-versed in the art of persuading, or effectively intimidating, political opponents by finding common ground or by appealing directly to the public — beyond his partisan base.
The notion that the president is literally blameless for Washington’s dysfunction — and again, I don’t mean the notion that he deserves at least some of the blame while Republicans deserve the lion’s share, but rather the notion that he is not to blame at all — is firmly entrenched, and so the prospects for a course correction seem bleak. To his credit, President Obama acknowledged that having invited Rep. Paul Ryan to an address that was a bitterly partisan attack on Ryan’s budget proposal was a mistake, as Woodward recounts in his book. Ryan had mistakenly assumed that the address would represent an olive branch to congressional Republicans. When it proved otherwise, he came to see the president in a different light. Given Ryan’s prominence in the Republican caucus, this seems like a remarkable strategic error.
Successful negotiations are founded on mutual trust. One gets the impression that President Obama’s strong ideological disagreements with congressional Republicans made it very difficult for him to treat them with the kind of respect that could serve as the basis for cooperation. The president’s failure to rally congressional Democrats to his side might have also contributed to the sense that he wasn’t a reliable partner.