There Goes the Woodward Vote!

Here’s First Read’s account of the interview with Diane Sawyer granted by Bob Woodward about his latest book, which has set the Beltway aflame:

What’s particularly striking about the new Bob Woodward book is that, unlike his past works, he’s making an argument rather than trying to recreate and report on a past event and letting others draw the conclusions. Woodward’s argument here: Obama didn’t lead in the debt-ceiling debate. Woodward told ABC, per Political Wire: “President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large worked their will,” Woodward said.” On this, President Obama did not.” He added, “Now, some people are going to say he was fighting a brick wall, the Republicans in the House and the Republicans in Congress. Others will say it’s the president’s job to figure out how to tear down that brick wall. In this case, he did not.”

Now I obviously haven’t read Woodward’s book (though I have read David Corn’s authoritative account of the debt-limit battle, Showdown), and you have to figure that whatever it says Woodward wants to sell a lot of copies by providing one of those “even-handed” assessments that spread the blame for dangerous events widely. But as quoted, Woodward’s take on Obama’s “leadership” as compared to past presidents is just ridiculous.

Reagan “worked his will” sometimes by building a coalition of Republicans and “Boll Weevil” Democrats who would by and large be Republicans today, and sometimes by making the kind of compromises Republicans today would never consider. Clinton “worked his will” by getting enough Democrats in a Democratic-controlled Congress to vote for his crucial first budget (no Republicans voted for it); then outmaneuvered Newt Gingrich and company on subsequent budgets; then won re-election by a big margin. Yes, he compromised with Republicans on welfare reform and the 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement, but only after fighting them on both for a good while. And compared to today’s congressional Republican leaders, Newt Gingrich was a malleable pussycat.

It’s telling that Woodward seems to ascribe Obama’s “leadership gap” to tiny personal gestures and other psychological factors, which were somehow as responsible as what he accurately calls a “brick wall” of GOP obstructionism for the debt limit crisis. He should have “figured out” how to overcome a hard-core ideological commitment, reinforced by litmus tests and threatened purges, to oppose tax increases no matter what, even if the economy was collapsing or even if the stars fell and the sun exploded.

Sure, Obama could have averted or shortened the crisis by just surrendering. I don’t know if that’s what Woodward faults him for not “figuring out,” but it’s the logical implication.

I do just love this last sentence from the First Read piece:

Does the Woodward book on such an ugly inside the Beltway fight have legs in the swing states in these final days? We’ll see.

I have a mental image of a swing voter in Iowa or Virginia staring at the tube or pouring over Politico, and then ruefully concluding: “Barack Obama has disappointed Bob Woodward. That does it for me.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.