For all the finger-pointing now, Obama and Boehner appear to have developed a rapport during the negotiations. The Illinois Democrat bonded with the Ohio Republican, starting with a much-publicized "golf summit" and continuing through long, substantive chats on the Truman Balcony and the patio right outside the Oval Office.
Boehner was drinking Merlot and smoking cigarettes, Obama sipping iced tea and chomping Nicorette. Obama, who had quit smoking by the time, wasn't offered a cigarette by Boehner and didn't ask for any, though he told Woodward he always made sure an ashtray was available for him. The two men were divided by ideology but united in looking for a legacy-making moment – even if it meant sacrificing their own jobs.
"I would willingly lose an election if I was able to actually resolve this in a way that was right," Obama told Woodward about his mindset at the time, comparing the debt negotiations to the decision to strike Osama bin Laden's compound.
Boehner voiced a similar desire to accomplish something big on spending: "I need this job like I need a hole in the head," he told Woodward. Yet top deputies loomed large over the negotiations. Vice President Joe Biden was labeled the "McConnell whisperer" by White House aides for his ability to cut deals with the often implacable Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The vice president led a parallel set of bipartisan talks that reached breakthroughs without the president's direct involvement.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is depicted as more in touch with the Republican caucus that elected Boehner speaker, particularly with its strong contingent of tea party freshmen who came to Washington pledging to put the brakes on federal spending at any cost.
Cantor, Woodward writes, viewed Boehner as a "runaway horse" who needed reining in, given the realities of his own caucus. The Boehner-Obama talks started without Cantor's knowledge, and Boehner later acknowledged to the president that Cantor was working against the very deal they were trying to reach, according to Woodward.
Intriguingly, Cantor and Biden frequently had "private asides" after larger meetings, according to Woodward. After one of them, Woodward writes that Biden told Cantor: "You know, if I were doing this, I'd do it totally different."
"Well, if I were running the Republican conference, I'd do it totally different," Cantor replied, according to Woodward.
Woodward writes: "They agreed that if they were in charge, they could come to a deal."
With the president taking charge, though, Obama found that he had little history with members of Congress to draw on. His administration's early decision to forego bipartisanship for the sake of speed around the stimulus bill was encapsulated by his then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel: "We have the votes. F--- 'em," he's quoted in the book as saying.