The book begins with a description of a dinner speech by then Senator Barack Obama, at a “right of passage” dinner for politicians, in 2006. In a self-deprecating manner, the handsome, smiling man delivers a speech essentially describing himself as an “empty suit”. The media and the politicians immediately fall in love. This love affair continues through his Presidential campaign in 2008, essentially helping elect this naïve and inexperienced “empty suit”, to the highest office in the land. This love affair has continued today.
The government is truly broken. Woodward takes us to meeting after meeting in the White House and halls of Congress and we witness a complete breakdown of our political system. Each group vies for position and power, putting one or another on the offensive so the work of the moment is never accomplished in a timely fashion but is maneuvered into position for the future benefit of the party or the elected official, be it a Senator, Representative or even the President. I think dysfunction is a rather benign description of what is taking place. Disastrous is a more accurate description.
When Obama moved into the White House, he brought with him inexperienced advisors and created a rather chaotic environment in which foul language and rising tempers were the norm. He brought Chicago politics into the White House and with it the demise of the gentlemanly way business used to be done. It may not have always worked, but it was civilized and things did get accomplished. Although Obama remained above the fray most of the time, protected by his cohorts, civility was often in short supply elsewhere in his White House. Trust between the different negotiators disappeared from the picture, and an all too eager media, acting on leaks that were put out to gain political advantage rather than solve the problem, was happy to stir the mix and create issues where sometimes there were none, essentially, causing the failure in the system to become even broader.
When Obama’s economic consultants came to him with budget recommendations for 2010, they were filled with gimmicks, their word, rather than actual fixes for the problems, and Obama went along with it thinking it was a game so he might as well play along. Orszag, Summers and Geithner, were scholars, ill prepared to play any political game, but they sure were prepared to play the games that would pull the wool over the eyes of the public, in the interest of the party, rather than all of the people. Every action, they and others took, was designed with a political motive at its heart, rather than a humanitarian or economic driver. Their methods escalated the divisions between the parties and caused more strife than necessary in the negotiations for the budget and all other issues. The widespread theme seemed to be my way or the highway and Obama believed in his omnipotence and ability to prevail. Obama’s administration was not the transparent administration he had claimed it would be; it was an administration of obfuscation, misdirection and propaganda dissemination. Obama doesn’t reach out, he acts alone, seems to play all ends against the middle and is overly confident in his own power. Neither he nor any member of his team could accept failure, so they artfully and expertly created artificial successes.
They were all playing a game of tit for tat, each trying to take advantage of the other. The GOP couldn’t do much on the tax front even though it was necessary, because their constituency and party would not abide any major changes that would increase taxes. The Progressives would not move on entitlement spending, even though they knew that it was the major cause of the problems, because their constituency and party would loudly object. Obama and his advisers often presented one face to one group, and another to the next, depending on their particular agenda, so the idea of trusting what was said or offered as a plan, quickly evaporated into thin air. If they abused the truth and were so adept at spinning a story to protect themselves and the party, what could be believed?
Who was the real Barack Obama? It was impossible to know who was in charge! There was simply too much in fighting and back stabbing. The GOP could not fight that kind of a machine. They were blindsided by the very nature of the fight. It was very underhanded, and it was a new game they had not played before in such a manipulative way. Who committed the greatest sins in all the conversations about health care, deficit reduction, the debt ceiling, budget discussions, entitlement and tax reform, is simply not important. What is important is that the system broke down because of these new tactics and it ceased to operate properly any longer. Compromise meant pulling the wool over the other guy’s eyes in order to get the upper hand. When using words as weapons, the message often became garbled. Hardliners blocked progress, and the hypocrites said whatever they wanted to achieve their own ends. The larger picture got compromised in petty party politics. They were all winging it because the playing field had altered and the GOP did not have the new rules. No one seemed to be doing what was expected of them, since no one knew what to do! There were power plays between the chiefs of staff, between Pelosi and Reid and Obama, Obama and Boehner, Cantor and Boehner, Lew and Geithner, Orszag and Summers, etc. Everyone wanted something, but it seemed that whatever the Democrats offered, to further the process, they quickly took off the table the next day, therefore raising the bar and setting the process back. When agreements were reached, both parties had to devise manipulative deceptive ways to present it, to please their cohorts. Party hacks that disagreed with the plans, manipulated from the inside, and leaks were given to the media to throw in a monkey wrench. No wonder nothing got done. Obama had brought change to the White House but it did not seem to be working out that well because of the gutter politics that also came with him.
Our representatives have lost their perspective. Instead of working to solve the problems of the people, they work to create stopgap measures simply to postpone the inevitable failure of their negotiations and preserve and secure their own positions and the positions of the party they represent, for the moment, and for future elections.
President Obama often says one thing and means another, playing with his words, saying what the person he is addressing wants to hear and then going on to say something else, about the same issue, to someone else, telling them what they want to hear. He covers all his bases and straddles the fence, trying to please everyone and as a result, pleases none of the people negotiating. The picture painted of him and his staff by the media is vastly different than the one painted by Woodward. Yes, he is cool and calm, most times, yes he can lose his temper and his anger is palpable, yes he is impressed with his own power and confident that he can save the day like a superhero, but now, he cannot do this, he needs the cooperation of the rest of the government. He is not a despot. His associates are all power hungry. They maneuver all the players on the board without real honesty and communication. No one seems to really say what is on their minds. There is no give and take. All the players are positioned to get as much as they can, rather than to solve the problem at hand. I am not saying that Congress is better, but the White House is in charge and is in the position of the utmost power and the one at the risk of abusing it the most. If the blame game and damage control have become the most important jobs of our government officials, is it any wonder we are no longer working to the best of our ability?
The infighting is distracting and destructive, the constant leaks are threatening the process, the rumors running around the White House and the Congress intimidate the parties involved and there is a rush to judgment which is often incorrect and nonconstructive, the media fans the flames and rather than cover the reality, they cover sound bites for ratings, sound bites that are not beneficial, nor are they moving the country into a better position, but instead, the media is bullying each and all, waiting for gotcha moments, not waiting to keep the public better informed, as they did once upon a time.
The negotiations were really about only a few things of which two were revenue and entitlements. After the health care bill conundrum was jammed through in a very unorthodox manner, the fiscal cliff facing America loomed larger. The Democrats were concerned about taking money from the rich and giving it away to the poor, with entitlements and at higher rates of taxation for the rich (but who gets to define rich?), and the Republicans were concerned about making sure the people who work hard for their money, taking all the risks in business, can keep the bulk of it. They were not opposed to revenue, regarding tax reform, but their idea of paying one’s fair share, meant not only for the very rich. They believed everyone needed skin in the game to have a stake in it and care about the outcome while the Democrats were enamored with the idea of redistribution because it bought them a larger constituency and more votes. Who is opposed to getting something for nothing? Once these ill gotten gains are received, who will give them back? They have a very clever and successful approach for garnering votes, but it may very well destroy the country as we know it, or rather, as we used to know it.
The Democrats have more control over their party; they vote more as a block and can be counted on, even when they disagree with the plan. The Republicans are defined as being in disarray because they do not have that consistency, and yet, I think I would rather have a representative who thinks for himself and is not a rubber stamp, especially when there is disagreement. It is important to come to a consensus, though, on policy, and the GOP is having a tougher time. They represent a different constituency. Most of their voters are not in favor of a nanny state with socialist principles, but they are the ones being asked to kick in for those who do believe in that. It is a conundrum, perhaps a challenge that cannot be met.
All the negotiators seem to be concerned with grabbing the spotlight first, protecting their bosses, and winning, not necessarily solving the problems. Woodward highlights certain people as sincere in their desire to solve the problems, as well as those that were constantly throwing in a monkey wrench to derail the process. Part of the problem, to me, seemed to be that these elected officials delegated too much responsibility to others, so they were never fully aware of the entire process, and by its very nature, the process kept them blindsided anyway, so it was really important for them to be fully informed. They relied on others to explain the procedure which was fine, but then they didn’t involve themselves in the whole process completely, so they were inclined to go off in tangential directions, making incorrect assumptions and completely derailing whatever progress had been made. Sadly, honesty was not a component of this process, or this really would not have been the case. No one wanted to put anything on paper, no one wanted to commit and give the other party any advantage, so the game goes round and round in circles and there is never any safe exit point.
The President either delegates too much or seems to take on too much, assuming he has more power than he does, and therefore he comes into conflict with the other branches of the government, but his administration is adept at finding ways around all obstacles. Their ranks are, after all, filled with many lawyers and professorial types who do not know how to work the halls of Congress or the government, but they do know how to get around corners and contest the ways we normally operate. They know how to create success from failure and seem to be doing a good job of it.
The book is repetitive by the very nature of the dysfunction we witness, but it is very easy to read. It clearly illustrated that nothing much ever seems to really get done. Infighting, backstabbing, backroom deals, clandestine meetings, each working against the efforts of the other, is a recipe for failure. There is enough blame to go all around, but the consensus is that the atmosphere in this White House has changed with this Presidency. There is a presumption of too much power in certain places, even rising to the very pinnacle. There is a sense of arrogance and perhaps, even thuggery, at times. Foul language and bad tempers seem to be the mainstay of many of the participants. The sense of the give and take of the old days is no longer in evidence. Rather, the sense of omnipotence is pervasive, (which may have germinated at the time that Obama first uttered the words, “I won” and then continued to threaten to go it alone), and although one would surely hope that at some point these officials would wake up and stop considering political advantage and power, and instead, consider the future of the country and the American people, we seem to continue our fast slide into oblivion and lowered credit ratings.