Obama’s sequester deal-changer
By Bob Woodward, Published: February 22
Bob Woodward (email@example.com) is an associate editor of The Post. His latest book is “The Price of Politics.” Evelyn M. Duffy contributed to this column.
Misunderstanding, misstatements and all the classic contortions of partisan message management surround the sequester, the term for the $85 billion in ugly and largely irrational federal spending cuts set by law to begin Friday.
What is the non-budget wonk to make of this? Who is responsible? What really happened?
The finger-pointing began during the third presidential debate last fall, on Oct. 22, when President Obama blamed Congress. “The sequester is not something that I’ve proposed,” Obama said. “It is something that Congress has proposed.”
The White House chief of staff at the time, Jack Lew, who had been budget director during the negotiations that set up the sequester in 2011, backed up the president two days later.
“There was an insistence on the part of Republicans in Congress for there to be some automatic trigger,” Lew said while campaigning in Florida. It “was very much rooted in the Republican congressional insistence that there be an automatic measure.”
The president and Lew had this wrong. 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.
Nabors has told others that they checked with the president before going to see Reid. A mandatory sequester was the only action-forcing mechanism they could devise. Nabors has said, “We didn’t actually think it would be that hard to convince them” — Reid and the Republicans — to adopt the sequester. “It really was the only thing we had. There was not a lot of other options left on the table.”
A majority of Republicans did vote for the Budget Control Act that summer, which included the sequester. Key Republican staffers said they didn’t even initially know what a sequester was — because the concept stemmed from the budget wars of the 1980s, when they were not in government.
At the Feb. 13 Senate Finance Committee hearing on Lew’s nomination to become Treasury secretary, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked Lew about the account in my book: “Woodward credits you with originating the plan for sequestration. Was he right or wrong?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Lew responded, “and even in his account, it was a little more complicated than that. We were in a negotiation where the failure would have meant the default of the government of the United States.”
“Did you make the suggestion?” Burr asked.
“Well, what I did was said that with all other options closed, we needed to look for an option where we could agree on how to resolve our differences. And we went back to the 1984 plan that Senator [Phil] Gramm and Senator [Warren] Rudman worked on and said that that would be a basis for having a consequence that would be so unacceptable to everyone that we would be able to get action.”
In other words, yes.
But then Burr asked about the president’s statement during the presidential debate, that the Republicans originated it.
Lew, being a good lawyer and a loyal presidential adviser, then shifted to denial mode: “Senator, the demand for an enforcement mechanism was not something that the administration was pushing at that moment.”
That statement was not accurate.
On Tuesday, Obama appeared at the White House with a group of police officers and firefighters to denounce the sequester as a “meat-cleaver approach” that would jeopardize military readiness and investments in education, energy and readiness. He also said it would cost jobs. But, the president said, the substitute would have to include new revenue through tax reform.
At noon that same day, White House press secretary Jay Carney shifted position and accepted sequester paternity.
“The sequester was something that was discussed,” Carney said. Walking back the earlier statements, he added carefully, “and as has been reported, it was an idea that the White House put forward.”
This was an acknowledgment that the president and Lew had been wrong.
Why does this matter?
First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)
Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”
In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.
So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.
Exclusive: The Woodward, Sperling emails revealed
By: Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei
February 28, 2013 08:30 AM EST
POLITICO’s “Behind the Curtain” column last night quoted Bob Woodward as saying that a senior White House official has told him in an email he would “regret” questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration. The official in question is Gene Sperling, economic adviser to the president. The White House has since pushed back, saying the exchange was far more innocuous than Woodward claims.
We have obtained, exclusively, the exchange. Here it is:
From Gene Sperling to Bob Woodward on Feb. 22, 2013
I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)
I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.
My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.
From Woodward to Sperling on Feb. 23, 2013
Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob
© 2013 POLITICO LLC
Woodward at war
By: Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei
February 27, 2013 08:01 PM EST
Bob Woodward called a senior White House official last week to tell him that in a piece in that weekend’s Washington Post, he was going to question President Barack Obama’s account of how sequestration came about — and got a major-league brushback. The Obama aide “yelled at me for about a half-hour,” Woodward told us in an hourlong interview yesterday around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington’s powerful have spilled their secrets.
Digging into one of his famous folders, Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today,” the official typed. “You’re focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. … I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’”
“They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. “I’ve tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there’s a young reporter who’s only had a couple of years — or 10 years’ — experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, ‘You’re going to regret this.’ You know, tremble, tremble. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”
UPDATE: The official Woodward is referencing is Gene Sperling, a top economic aide, as BuzzFeed reported last night and we confirmed. Sources tell us the White House might release the full exchange to show it was much more innocuous than Woodward suggests.
ANOTHER UPDATE. We have obtained the actual email exchange and posted it here.
A White House official said: “Of course no threat was intended. As Mr. Woodward noted, the email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation.”
Woodward — first in “The Price of Politics,” his best-seller on the failed quest for a grand budget bargain, and later with his opinion piece in the Post — makes plain that sequestration was an idea crafted by the White House. Obama personally approved the plan and later signed it into law. Woodward was right, several congressional officials involved in the talks told us.
And that contention has made Woodward, once Public Enemy No. 1 to a generation of Republicans, the unlikely darling of the right wing. Conservatives suddenly swoon over him, with his stepped-up appearances on Fox News and starring role in GOP press releases. And while White House officials are certainly within their rights to yell at any journalist, including Bob Woodward, this very public battle with a Washington legend has become a major distraction at a pivotal moment for the president.
The feud also feeds a larger narrative because, like many others, Woodward thinks this is a very thin-skinned White House that does not like being challenged on the facts. He said that explains the senior aide’s in-your-face email. “I think when they get their rear end in a crack here, they become defensive,” he said. “This could be a huge issue if the economy takes a hit. And people are going to go back and say exactly what happened and who did it and so forth.”
The Woodward reporting has caused the White House spin machine to sputter at a crucial time. The president was running around the country, campaign-style, warning that Republicans were at fault for the massive cuts set to hit Friday. What Obama never says: It was his own staff that proposed sequestration, and the tax hikes he now proposes — aimed at replacing half of the cuts — were never part of that very specific plan.
The White House instead has, with great success, fudged the facts. The administration has convinced a majority of the country that Republicans are more to blame by emphasizing that Republicans voted for the plan. Which they did — after Obama conceived it.
The truth is that Obama and Republicans supported it because everyone believed it was a such a stupid idea that the grown-ups in Washington would never actually let it happen. They thought Obama and Congress would come up with a grand bargain on spending, entitlement cuts and tax increases, instead of allowing the sequestration ax to fall. They were wrong.
So the blame game is in full swing — and Woodward is smack in the middle of it. The Obama White House is out to discredit him. Behind the scenes, Obama allies are spreading word that the Woodward book broadly — and his reporting on sequestration specifically — are misleading because Republicans, especially House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, were so clearly among the chief sources.
It is no secret on Capitol Hill that Cantor and his staff cooperated extensively with Woodward. It is fairly obvious as you breeze through the opening chapters of the book. But we have talked with many Democrats and Republicans who cooperated with the book. And all of them say that while they might dispute some of the broader analytical points Woodward makes, the play-by-play is basically spot on.
David Plouffe, the longtime political adviser to Obama, taunted Woodward on Twitter shortly after this column was published. “Watching Woodward last 2 days is like imagining my idol Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again,” he tweeted. “Perfection gained once is rarely repeated.”
Watching and now having interviewed Woodward, it is easy to see why White House officials get worked up about him. He clearly is skeptical of Obama’s approach to the job. “I’m not sure he fully understands the power he has,” Woodward said. “He sees that the power is the public megaphone going around to these campaign-like events, which is real, but the audience he needs to deal with is on this issue of the sequester and these budget issues is John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.”
Woodward also said that based on his reporting for the book, Obama deserves more of the blame for scuttling the grand bargain of 2011 that would have put sequestration to rest long ago. “He changed the deal and it blew up,” Woodward said. “I mean, you look at the facts, and even by the White House accounts by his aides, he was making a last-minute change.”
Woodward thinks there is still a grand bargain to be had between Obama and Boehner, with tax reform as a huge component. “Sit down and work through this,” he said. “I can see exactly how you come up with a deal that would dispose of lots of things.” Woodward, who helped bring down one presidency and has written instant history on every one since, added: “Color me a little baffled. I don’t understand this White House. Do you?”
© 2013 POLITICO LLC
Obama White House: Prevarication and intimidation
By Jennifer Rubin, Updated: February 28, 2013
For some people, the worst comes out when they are under stress. President Obama is under a lot of stress, having predicted budgetary Armageddon and failed to stir the Republican House on the sequester. And sure enough, we see the worst aspects of his character and his presidency.
First, he has a nasty habit of making stuff up. Now that he is sending out his Cabinet officials to scare the public he finally is being called on it. His education secretary gets a rare four Pinocchios from The Post’s Glenn Kessler:
There is little debate that across-the-board spending cuts in education funding will cause pain for some schools and states. But there is no reason to hype the statistics — or to make scary pronouncements on pink slips being issued based on misinformation.
Indeed, Duncan’s lack of seriousness about being scrupulously factual undercuts the administration’s claim that the cuts are a serious problem.
Duncan made this claim not once, not twice, but three times.
So much for his reputation.
Even worse are the White House’s bullying tactics, which treat all dissent — even inconvenient facts! — as treachery. Bob Woodward described what ensued after a half-hour “tirade” by a White House aide [ later revealed by the White House to be Gene Sperling] about his reporting on the White House’s authorship of the sequester:
Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today,” the official typed. “You’re focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. … I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’ ”
“They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. “I’ve tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there’s a young reporter who’s only had a couple of years — or 10 years’ — experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, ‘You’re going to regret this.’ You know, tremble, tremble. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.” The White House declined to comment for this story.
This is monstrously stupid of the White House displaying what we have seen repeatedly: The administration cannot defend its positions on the merits, so it attacks critics. It also suggests a level of desperation rarely seen from the arrogant Obama White House. [UPDATE: the full emails reveal less bullying and far more pomposity, suggesting the White House would have its critic’s best interest at heart. ]
The president risks not only losing the sequester battle but also going from halo-crowned messiah to nasty bully in the eyes of at least some in the media and, more important, in the view of the country. The voters have maintained an extraordinarily high level of personal support for Obama (although he got only 51 percent of the vote), despite really rotten economic results. That goodwill may fray or even break if he keeps prevaricating and throwing his weight around.
Well, at least we don’t have politics “as usual,” which Obama bemoaned in the 2008 campaign. No, it is much, much worse. It’s impossible for Obama to achieve Reagan-like status (for reasons discussed here), but he just might become the left’s Nixon if he keeps this up.
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