Boehner sized up his adversary during one of his early private meetings with Obama, telling Woodward: “I just started chuckling to myself. Because all you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking merlot, and I look across the table and there is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette,” the gum for smokers trying to break their habit.
Boehner says, in his interview with Woodward, that his first pullout from the secret talks was a strategy intended to “rattle the president a little bit into being serious.”
Obama succeeded in getting Boehner to tentatively agree to as much as $800 billion in new revenue, a major concession, only to surprise the speaker with a request for an additional $400 billion as their negotiations neared the final stages. Unable to muster support among his lieutenants for such a proposal, Boehner ducked the president’s phone calls before pulling out of the talks for good.
Obama reacted angrily to Boehner’s refusal to take his calls, according to Woodward, telling the speaker when they talked next: “That’s not a reason to cut off the conversation. I asked you to consider it. And you never got back to me.”
“He was spewing coals,” Boehner told Woodward in the interview.
In his final chapter, Woodward faults both Obama and Boehner for their handling of the fiscal crisis, concluding that “neither was able to transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas. Rather than fixing the problem, they postponed it. . . . When they met resistance from other leaders in their parties, they did not stand their ground.”
He has tougher words for Obama. “It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition,” he writes. “But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on important matters of national business. . . . Obama has not.”
Lengthy narratives exploring the collapse of the Obama-Boehner talks have appeared previously in several news outlets, notably The Post and the New York Times Magazine. Woodward’s book covers that terrain as well but also breaks new ground with a detailed account of how the two sides reached the agreement now being called the “fiscal cliff” — because it will trigger large automatic spending cuts at the end of the year, unless Congress acts to change the law.
Woodward’s account — based on interviews with Obama, Boehner and others, as well as participants’ meeting notes — often shows how the rough-and-tumble nature of Washington politics has left not only bruised egos but also lingering resentment within both parties.
For example, in 2010, the Democratic congressional leadership wanted Obama to stand fast against a Republican call for a two-year extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts. Obama decided to go along with an extension. Woodward quotes an angry Reid as telling the White House: “You go sell it. Not my deal, not my problem. . . . Hope you can line up the Senate Democrats behind you because I’m not going to.”
Woodward also documents the disarray inside the House Republican caucus, particularly the depth of distrust between Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.). Boehner kept Cantor in the dark about his secret talks with Obama, Woodward reports. At the same time, Cantor was meeting — on the speaker’s instruction — with a bipartisan group led by Vice President Biden, trying to work out a deal.
When Cantor learned from Biden about the covert Boehner-Obama negotiations, he felt “lied to,” according to Woodward. “I get more information out of Joe Biden than I do my own speaker,” the majority leader is quoted as saying.
Similarly, Woodward quotes Obama as complaining openly to his aides about Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), his main Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. “The one thing that I said I actually needed, they didn’t get,” he fumes to his advisers as he tries to avoid a plan that would raise the debt ceiling enough to cover a few months. “I needed this to go past the election, and they didn’t get it for me.”
Boehner, Cantor and other Republicans were insisting that they would agree only to a short-term deal. An angry Obama told his aides, according to Woodward: “It’s hijacking the economy, putting a gun to the head of the economy.”
In his interview with Woodward, the president confirmed that he was adamant in his opposition to a “two-step” deal. To give in, he said, would hand the Republicans a permanent weapon. “We can’t do business by threatening to default every three months.”