Mind-numbingly dull in large part and woefully myopic, Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics is destined to be widely purchased but seldom fully read.
No reporter has better access to Washington’s powerful, and none can beat his record of getting them to divulge secrets. But The Price of Politics represents a terrible mismatch of reporter and subject. The book’s topic, last summer’s standoff over raising the federal debt ceiling, contains no real secrets, thus vitiating Woodward’s great strength. Instead, it calls out for analysis and context, his great weaknesses.
Reporters chronicled the negotiations as they happened. And in the year since the debt-ceiling vote, other reporters, notably Matt Bai of The New York Times, have mined the ground thoroughly for what nuggets remained. Because of that, Woodward’s book contains no news of significance.
To summarize the action: In the spring of 2011, newly elected conservatives in the House of Representatives realized that a normally routine but crucial vote to raise the federal debt ceiling gave them leverage to force their priorities on President Obama and Senate Democrats. Feverish negotiations ensued. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried to reach a “grand bargain” that would have resolved the government’s fiscal problems for the next decade. The effort to raise the debt ceiling ultimately succeeded, but the broader talks failed.
How close Obama and Boehner came to a deal and why they failed have been the subject of mutual recriminations for more than a year. Woodward sheds little new light on either question. He interviews both men and their top aides, quotes their now-familiar spin at considerable length and states the obvious — their recollections disagree.
Beyond the ferreting out of secrets, Woodward’s other strength is his ability to put readers in the room as the decision makers work. Here, that’s no favor. Being in the room means being trapped as Obama, Boehner and senior aides trade budget proposals in a tedious process that ends not in a bang but a fizzle. Most readers will simply want to get out.
The worst problem, however, is that the intense focus on what is going on in the room blinds Woodward to the far more consequential actions taking place outside. The tea party conservatives, who launched the debt standoff and sharply limited Boehner’s ability to act, barely make an appearance. When late in the book they repeatedly block Boehner’s effort to get his own bill through the House, a reader may well wonder where they came from.
Woodward concludes that the budget talks failed because Obama and Boehner lacked the personal relationship and mutual trust to negotiate a deal. He assigns the majority of the blame to Obama. “Presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business,” and Obama failed to do so, he concludes.
That assessment simultaneously misunderstands the subject and vastly overstates presidential power. The grand bargain talks involved the size of government and its role, issues on which the two parties fundamentally disagree. Of all the factors inhibiting agreement, the personal relationships among those in the room are the most overrated.
David Lauter reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.