Bob Woodward Book: Debt Deal Collapse Led to 'Pure Fury' From President Obama


Obama's relationship with Democrats wasn't always much better. Woodward recounts an episode early in his presidency when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were hammering out final details of the stimulus bill.

Obama phoned in to deliver a "high-minded message," he writes. Obama went on so long that Pelosi "reached over and pressed the mute button on her phone," so they could continue to work without the president hearing that they weren't paying attention.

As debt negotiations progressed, Democrats complained of being out of the loop, not knowing where the White House stood on major points. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is described as having a "growing feeling of incredulity" as negotiations meandered.

"The administration didn't seem to have a strategy. It was unbelievable. There didn't seem to be any core principles," Woodward writes in describing Van Hollen's thinking.

Larry Summers, a top economic adviser to Obama who also served as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, identified a key distinction that he said impacted budget and spending talks.

"Obama doesn't really have the joy of the game. Clinton basically loved negotiating with a bunch of pols, about anything," Summers said. "Whereas, Obama, he really didn't like these guys."

Summers said that Obama's "excessive pragmatism" was a problem. "I don't think anybody has a sense of his deep feelings about things." Summers said. "I don't think anybody has a sense of his deep feelings about people. I don't think people have a sense of his deep feelings around the public philosophy."

Obama and his top aides were at times dismissive of the tea party freshmen in Congress who made the debt limit into a major fight. He told Woodward he had "some sympathy" for Boehner, since "he just can't control the forces in his caucus now."

"You see how crazy these people are. I understand him," the president said.

Boehner was equally harsh in his judgment of the flaws inside the White House.

"The president was trying to get there. But there was nobody steering the ship underneath him," Boehner told Woodward. "They never had their act together. The president, I think, was ill-served by his team. Nobody in charge, no process. I just don't know how the place works. To this day, I can't tell you how the place works. There's no process for making a decision in this White House. There's nobody in charge."

One important moment in the negotiations came when the president scheduled a major address on the nation's long-term debt crisis. A White House staffer thought to invite House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., along with the other two House Republicans who had served on the Simpson-Bowles debt commission.

The president delivered a blistering address, taking apart the Ryan budget plan as "changing the basic social compact in America." Ryan left the speech "genuinely ripped," Woodward writes, feeling that Obama was engaged in "game-on demagoguery" rather than trying to work with the new Republican majority.

"I can't believe you poisoned the well like that," Ryan told Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling on his way out of the speech.

The president told Woodward that he wasn't aware that Ryan was in the audience, and he called inviting him there "a mistake."

If he had known, Obama told Woodard, "I might have modified some of it so that we would leave more negotiations open, because I do think that they felt like we were trying to embarrass him… We made a mistake."

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