Bob Woodward’s Anti-Obama Bias
THE MOST VIVID scene in Bob Woodward’s new book has almost nothing to do with his central narrative, but reveals a lot about the narrator. The scene takes place in February of 2009, as Congress is laboring to ward off an economic collapse. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker, is hunkered down in her office with Harry Reid, her Senate counterpart, to negotiate a stimulus bill that can pass both chambers. This is no easy task. The bill must be modest enough to survive a Republican filibuster, but ambitious enough to satisfy Pelosi’s liberal caucus. But, then, these are veteran legislators—born deal-makers at that. They get to work with all the seriousness you’d expect.
At which point the president calls in via speaker phone and starts droning on about “unity of action” and “unity of purpose” (Woodward’s paraphrasing). It’s the kind of blather that can wow a stadium full of college students but means nothing in the power corridors of Washington. Pelosi and Reid thank the president coldly, and yet he doesn’t take the hint. Finally, Pelosi reaches over and hits the mute button. “They could hear Obama, but now he couldn’t hear them,” Woodward writes. “The president continued speaking, his disembodied voice filling the room, and the two leaders got back to the hard numbers.”
This is riveting stuff. Three weeks into his term, and the top Democrats in Congress had already written off Obama as a self-important windbag! Not surprisingly, Pelosi has denied the episode, prompting Woodward to release a transcript from a source in the room. But setting aside whether the scene is literally true—and I’d put my money on Woodward—the real question relates to its implication: Does it mean what Woodward insinuates? Was Obama a bystander while Pelosi and Reid pulled the country back from the abyss?
Not even close. In fact, the stimulus bill was heavily shaped by the White House. If anything, Pelosi was the bystander in the endgame. The final contours of the stimulus package were hashed out among a handful of Senate moderates with two of the president’s top advisers—Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Budget Director Peter Orszag—helping to broker the negotiations. Pelosi felt so betrayed when she heard about their deal that she unloaded on a top White House official. (Woodward doesn’t provide enough detail to say for sure, but I suspect the meeting he’s referring to took place over the next few days, when Reid and the White House smoothed things over by tweaking some numbers.)