White House pushes back on claims from Woodward book

Bob Woodward’s new book on the collapse of the grand bargain has put the Obama White House on the defensive on economic policy just as the 2012 campaign enters its most crucial phase.

Republicans have seized on The Price of Politics as evidence President Obama is in over his head on the economy.

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The White House on Monday pushed back against Woodward’s latest conclusions: that weak leadership by Obama worsened last year’s debt-ceiling crisis and led to the failure to enact a deficit grand bargain.

Obama’s leadership during the crisis was “significant,” according to White House spokesman Jay Carney, and reflected a “sincere and deliberate” effort to compromise.

Carney said that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) showed he was “willing to compromise” during secret debt talks with Obama last summer, but that “unfortunately, throughout that process ... House Republicans walked away.”

“The president fought hard for a grand bargain. ... At the end, the Speaker looked over his shoulder and found there was no one behind him,” Carney said.

Boehner’s office countered that Woodward’s book shows Obama “lost his courage” when it came time to strike a deal.

“The book confirms previous reporting about how the Speaker, majority leader and the president had a framework of a deal on tax and entitlement reform, and then the president moved the goalposts and lost his courage. Presidents have a responsibility to lead, and this president has failed the test of leadership when it comes to creating jobs and addressing our debt crisis,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said in a statement.

The Price of Politics has harsh words for Obama and House Republican leaders, and portrays Washington as being adrift last year as the United States teetered on the edge of a historic debt default. It portrays deep divisions between Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

So far, Democrats have not been able to exploit the book to their advantage as much as Republicans have.

The book concludes that Obama, unlike previous presidents, was not able to “work his will” on Congress and finish a deal that would reduce the deficit in a way he found acceptable.

Republicans have seized on the portrayal of the president, with the Republican National Committee (RNC) highlighting the book in emails to reporters.

The RNC is focusing on a part of the book in which Woodward clarifies that the debt-ceiling deal — which includes the controversial defense sequester for which Mitt Romney has blamed Obama — was hammered out after Obama left the room.

“Woodward’s new book reveals a president who can’t lead and a White House where no one is in charge. Our nation would be in default today if congressional leaders hadn’t forced Obama to leave the room and the negotiations to adult leadership,” said Kirsten Kukowski, an RNC spokeswoman.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made reference to the book during a meeting with reporters on Monday.

“Look, when Harry Reid’s own chief of staff has to lecture the president on not having a plan, and this is what he’s offered, I think the American people will see through who’s actually done the work, and who hasn’t,” he said.

McCarthy referred to a section in the book wherein David Krone, from Senate Majority Leader Reid’s (D-Nev.) staff, lectures Obama on not having a backup plan after the Boehner talks failed.

“It is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B,” Krone said, according to Woodward.

The Boehner-Obama talks abruptly ended in July 2011, days before the government was to run out of authority to continue borrowing to pay its debts.

The talks had focused on a package of spending cuts, including some entitlement reforms, and tax code changes. The key stumbling block was the amount of revenue that the tax code reform was to raise, with Republicans objecting to net tax increases.

The debt-ceiling crisis, which was initially provoked by Republicans in Congress seeking to force Obama to rein in spending, led to the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard and Poor’s.

Carney said Obama at all times acted with the responsibility that comes with being commander in chief.

“There is no question the president had to be the responsible party and ensure that however they ended, they prevented default,” he said.

During the briefing on Monday, Carney maintained that Obama went out of his way to reach a deal, spending considerable time with Boehner.

The White House spokesman also disagreed with the assessment that Obama could have been more sociable with Congress to develop the ties needed to cut a deal, calling it a “fallacy.” 

“I’m not sure what magical past people are invoking where they imagine that in any recent time, serious accomplishments were achieved in policy matters at a dinner in Georgetown,” he said. “It doesn’t happen.”

— Russell Berman contributed to this report. Updated at 8:09 p.m.