As Another Budget Battle Looms, Bob Woodward Sticks With Both-Sides-Are-To-Blame Tale

Reading Bob Woodward's recent dissection of previous budget negotiations between Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama, readers got to see just how strong the urge is among Beltway media insiders to blame both sides for failed efforts in the past. In the case of Woodward, the urge is so strong it overtakes his own reporting.

Woodward's lengthy September 6 piece, headlined “The inside story of how Obama and Boehner negotiate,” examined the weeks-long back and forth between Boehner and Obama late last year as the two tried to work out a budget deal to avoid going over the so-called “fiscal cliff.” In the piece, Woodward reports how Obama was willing to make key compromises only to have a larger deal scuttled at the last minute.

Yet after detailing how Obama had offered up significant concessions -- concessions his political supporters strongly opposed at the time -- Woodward concluded that a meaningful deal wasn't struck because Obama, along with Boehner, “would not compromise.”

In other words, Woodward's analysis doesn't trust Woodward's reporting.

Touted as a detailed telling based on “congressional aides, meeting notes, and budget documents,” Woodward's reporting is quite clear about the string of compromises Obama was willing to make.

Woodward's take-away? Obama shoulders half the blame for failing to craft a deal because he failed to “compromise” sufficiently, despite the fact that the main roadblock to a larger compromise was the unrelenting partisanship of the GOP majority in the House.

No surprise perhaps, since with his book last year about budget negotiations, Woodward previously rallied around the both-sides-are-to-blame narrative: “The ultimate problem, the book suggests, was a lack of leadership by both Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama,” noted the New York Times review of the book.

This sort of graphic misreading of the facts reflects the long-running press phenomena of ignoring or glossing over the Republican Party's brand of radical obstructionism since Obama became president in 2009. (And then blaming Obama for that behavior.) Much of the negotiation coverage, from the so-called fiscal cliff to sequestration, perpetuates the myth that Republicans are willing and eager partners in governance, it's just that Obama hasn't yet figured out how the get them to cooperate. (It's so obvious!)

He's not leading.

Why the chronic desire by the press to blame both sides when Republicans have so clearly, and at times so proudly, balked at compromising?  Because blaming Republicans would mean the press was taking sides and would mean labeling Republicans for what they actually are, fevered obstructionists. Because reporting the facts would leave the press open to cries of liberal media bias. So instead, D.C. commentators cling to the narrative that both sides are to blame, even when one side (Democrats) keeps making the concessions and the other sides (Republicans) keeps rejecting them.  (See: The media's centrist dodge)

With yet another budget fight looming, this one revolving around an October 1 deadline for a long-term deficit reduction agreement, the press will once again likely assign blame if talks bog down. It would be refreshing if reporters and pundits like Woodward stuck to the facts and proper context.

From the New York Times report, August 29, 2013, located in the 11th paragraph out of 15 [emphasis added]:

Hanging over the talks is the knowledge that any agreement is likely to hit a wall in the Republican-controlled House, where the majority is determined not to compromise with Mr. Obama and where the party's leaders have been unable to pass even their own fiscal measures over the past year. 

Isn't that really the entire budget negotiation story? i.e. Even if Republicans leaders come to an agreement with Obama, the Republican House threatens to reject the agreement.

Any agreement.

How is that element not driving all of the coverage? And why do people like Woodward continue to peddle the false story line that if Obama would just give a little, a long-term agreement could be fashioned?

Woodward has written extensively about previous budget negotiations and has misstated key facts in the past; facts that highlight how time and again the administration has offered up concessions only to be met with blanket resistances from Republicans.

In February, Woodward accused the administration of “moving the goal posts,” and thereby making a deal more difficult, by proposing to replace sequester with an alternative plan to reduce the deficit. Woodward claimed the White House had not asked for additional revenue in previous proposals.

False. Obama didn't move the goal posts. He'd been pushing for revenue as part of the sequestration fix since Congress passed 2011 Budget Control Act.

Woodward then compounded his mistake by making the absurd public accusation that the White House had threatened him the wake of his “move the goal post” claim. (Instead, senior White House aide Gene Sperling, in a rather innocuous email, had simply pointed out to Woodward that his claim was false, which it was.)

The sad truth is that as a series of budget negotiations have dragged on in recent years we've seen other Beltway media elites push misinformation about the process, stressing how the Obama administration stands in the way of a deal. In February, New York Times columnist David Brooks complained that the White House hadn't “actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.”

Except that long before Brooks' column appeared, the White House website had posted a detailed budgetary blueprint entitled, “A Balanced Plan to Avert the Sequester and Reduce the Deficit.” In an apparent attempt to make it sound like the White House wasn't willing to make actual compromises, Brooks claimed the administration's plan amounted to, “Tax increases on the rich!” Brooks later had to append an embarrassing postscript fixing his blunder, explaining that “The White House has proposed various constructive changes to spending levels and entitlement programs.”

Both sides are not to blame for the unprecedented stagnation and obstruction that surrounds budget and spending negotiations. Seasoned observers like Woodward know that. It's about time they acknowledge it.