Bob Woodward: Obama and the Sequester

2013 02 25 Bob WoodwardSo… the sequester showdown is coming. I haven’t written much about it because I hate politics more with every passing hour and I wish a pox on both houses. Fervently. But I’ve been fascinated by the reporting of Bob Woodward. From the Washington Post four days ago:

My extensive reporting for my book “The Price of Politics” shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors — probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government.

Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). They did so at 2:30 p.m. July 27, 2011, according to interviews with two senior White House aides who were directly involved.

And then yesterday via CNBC:

Several inside 1600 Pennsylvania have tangled with the legendary journalist Bob Woodward. Few emerged unscathed.

The Obama administration is now fighting back against the best-selling author who made his name and reputation in reporting the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. And it’s revealing what they’re not challenging—the miasma of bad faith with Republicans over the budget and the $85 billion in sequestered budget cuts expected to begin on Friday.

I think it’s important information to understand that the sequester originated with President Obama because when the President of the United States lies to the nation about an important issue people should know. Right now the Democrats are basically betting that the GOP will be blamed for the sequester and they are relying on a friendly media to  bolster that impression. But the Republicans–no paragons of virtue or common sense among the bunch–seem to think the Democrats have overreached. Or maybe they are just having a temper tantrum. I don’t know.

I just know that no good can come of serious policy debates mired in falsehood and bad faith, and right now that’s what we’ve got. Thanks to both sides. I wish I had more to offer, but these days I don’t. The problems facing are nation just aren’t that hard. Any number of alternative solutions could be a substantial improvement, but as long as the public treats it like a game of football I don’t have a lot of hope for that.

7 thoughts on “Bob Woodward: Obama and the Sequester”

  1. “The first part of Woodward’s claim — that Obama’s side came up with the sequestration idea — is very narrowly true, but it’s a meaningful point only if you ignore everything that happened before and after. The reason Obama came up with sequestration is that House Republicans had threatened a global economic crisis by refusing the raise the debt ceiling, so the two sides needed a way to get them to lift the debt ceiling. If a mugger demands your wallet, you say you left the wallet at home but offer your watch, it’s a wee bit unfair to describe the plan to give him a watch as “your idea.””

    This is right, of course. The tell is in the GOP plan to blame the sequester on Obama but then try to downplay it as not being so bad. The nut of the next graf is even more important: the sequester can be replaced, but only with a deficit reducing alternative. That alternative can be a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, or it can be just spending cuts. The Republicans have said “no new revenues under any circumstances”, so the sequester is either going to happen or it’s going to be replaced with spending cuts. Those are the only two options when revenues are taken off the table. What’s really curious is that the GOP could get what it (nominally) wants if Boehner wasn’t being threatened with a revolt by the Tea Party. He could life the Hastert rule and hold a vote TODAY and pass a replacement, but he’d lose his speakership and tear the party asunder.

    Further reading:

  2. I think that the republicans knew the President wouldn’t discuss any additional cuts (or any at all) without additional tax increases. I also think they were depending on his stance last time around to try to force him to the table without tax hikes. Basically they out played him in the realm of forcing cuts to occur while not having to fight tooth and nail to get anything done and also without having to toss in additional tax hikes.

    I suppose for that one can say it is the fault of the republicans, because they want the cuts to occur even if it’s not the ideal situation for them. That’s fine, since cuts are necessary and by doing it in this manner they can avoid both the infighting that would occur from ‘what to cut’ as well as the push from the President (and probably media) to hike taxes up again.

    Last thought, I wonder how many news outlets are going to care where it came from, that it was necessary to some extent, and that it really is the fault ultimately of the President. I say that because you should NEVER propose legislation that you don’t fully intend to follow through with, even if you’re real purpose was to force the ‘other side’ to negotiate or face the legislation in place. They called his bluff and he doesn’t like it. To bad, suck it up and move on.

  3. “Basically they out played him in the realm of forcing cuts to occur while not having to fight tooth and nail to get anything done and also without having to toss in additional tax hikes.”

    Perhaps, but consider that the Pentagon is going to get fire-axed. Consider too what the next SecDef’s position is on Pentagon bloat:

    Would Obama EVER have gotten this level of military cuts out of a Republican house? Not a chance. Perhaps these two things are interrelated? I wonder….

    As for the rest of what’s getting cut, there won’t be any cuts to entitlement spending (what’s actually animating deficit scolds), but there will be cuts to very public things like air travel (e.g. 1.5+ hour delays). People who believe (like Woodward) in the Cult of the Presidency may fault the President for not working his will on an intransigent House, but there’s very scant evidence that the general public will.

    To recap:
    1) huge (historically, at least) cuts in military spending
    2) cuts in non-entitlement spending that will piss a lot of people off
    3) The GOP blaming the President because cuts weren’t 100% replaced with cuts

    I don’t think the President dislikes the bluff calling as much as you think he does.

  4. I don’t think the President dislikes the bluff calling as much as you think he does.

    That’s exactly why I’m skeptical of your mugger-analogy. You want to simultaneously believe that President Obama had essentially nothing to do with formulating the sequester, and also that he stands to do nothing but gain from it politically. Of course that’s theoretically possible, but the more you push those two extremes (especially given the simple truth that he did personally approve the concept) the less plausible of a position it becomes.

  5. I’m not following. That receiving the watch instead of the wallet happens to be non-optimal for the mugger is irrelevant as to why the watch is being offered at all. To extend the analogy, imagine that instead of a normal watch it’s (unbeknownst to the mugger) a special GPS-enabled watch. In handing over this special watch, the owner profits both by keeping his wallet AND increasing the likelihood that the mugger will be punished. This is now doubly non-optimal for the mugger, but again has no bearing on the choice to mug someone.

    The argument isn’t that Obama had NOTHING to do with the sequester, but that the sequester was truly, obviously and indisputably a swap for the economy that was being held at gunpoint. Would the sequester have been offered if the country wasn’t threatened with a forced default? Of course not.

  6. Okay, so how about the concept that the Democrats worry that the worst thing that can happen with this is ‘nothing’ or ‘not enough for the public to really care’. The Republicans are worried that the public will care or that ‘something’ will happen. It kills me that both sides are essentially playing chicken. I don’t like it from either side and if anything bad does happen I blame BOTH sides.

    The sad part is that I get the feeling the President can make certain things happen to make it seem worse than it really is, and for political reasons he would. I certainly hope he doesn’t but from his previous actions he will either talk about it more or longer than we need to hear about it (which will sound like whining) or he’ll act by executive order.

    Neither of those things is very appealing and honestly just makes him look bad in my eyes. However if he doesn’t do either of those things, I will gladly state that he did his best and I’m glad he did what he could to ease the pain of a difficult situation.

    I am aware that the pentagon is going to get fire axed, however we are winding down a war that’s been going on for more than 10 years. Their budget should be cut and the forces downsized. The focus should be on getting the veterans into civilian jobs, not a bunch of top brass keeping their jobs at the pentagon. I know I’m generalizing about the ‘top brass’ but I don’t feel like getting into it in a specific manner.

  7. Is the press corps getting some guts? Are they finally prepared to challenge the President’s untruthful assertions on facts that are crucial to understanding policy?

    None other than NBC’s David Gregory pressed Obama’s chief economic advisor, Gene Sperling, whether his boss told the truth in the third presidential debate that “the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed.” Sperling finally wilted under the pressure of tough questioning to admit that “yes, in fact, the sequestration was President Obama’s plan.”


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