Nixon-era famed investigative Watergate journalist 69-year-old Bob Woodward accused the Obama White House of intimidation in the highly charged “sequester” debate. Faced with $85 billion in automatic spending cuts March 1, the White House and Congress are trading blame, both pointing fingers when the solution involves getting on the same page. When the bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility and Deficit Reform Committee couldn’t agree on a fix Dec. 10, 2011, the automatic spending cuts went into effect, slashing the federal budget. That same committee didn’t take into account improvements in the U.S. economy that make spending cuts to reduce the nation’s $1 trillion budget deficit unnecessary. With the economy adding about 7 million jobs since April 2010 and the federal Treasury collecting billions in new taxes, the same spending cuts are no longer needed today.
Woodward said “a very senior” member of the Obama campaign warned him against publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post blaming the White House for creating the “sequester” or automatic spending cuts. Distancing himself from Woodward, 45-year-old White House advisor David Plouffe pushed back. “Watching Woodward the last two days is like imaging my idol Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated, Plouffe, hinting that Woodward suffers from age-related decline. Accusing the White House of “moving the goalposts,” Woodward suggests that the sequester was Obama’s idea to try to exact more tax concessions out of reluctant Republicans. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kt.) settled with the White House Jan. 1 on the “fiscal cliff,” the GOP told Obama in no uncertain terms that there’d be no more tax hikes.
Woodward insists that when Obama cut the deal with McConnell Jan. 1 he knew he’d get no more tax hikes from Congressional Republicans. Speaking disparagingly about Woodward—whether or not he deserves it—indicts the White House case, certainly its message. Plouffe should know better about taking on an iconic journalist like Woodward. Saying he a senior White House aid “yelled at me for about a half hour,” Woodward complained to CNN. “It was very clearly: ‘you’ll regret doing this,’” said Woodward, talking about an unnamed senior White House official. Saying “you’ll regret doing this” hardly constitutes intimidation, coercion or veiled threats. After wending his ways through various inside circles, Woodward often gets the inside dirt on most Washington politicians. Whether Woodward overreacted or not, Plouffe’s response raised eyebrows.
Given Woodward’s reputation as a journalist-sleuth—the one that helped bring down the Nixon White House—it doesn’t help Obama’s narrative on the “fiscal cliff” or “sequester” arguing with Woodward. “I’m not going to say [who], a very senior person. It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters you’re going to regret doing something you believe in,” said Woodward, knowing full well that talking to “one” senior official doesn’t speak for the White House. In the course of daily contacts, it’s possible for “a senior White House official” to get hot under the collar or say things they regret. How Woodward construes this as coercion is anyone’s guess. If anything, Woodward used coercion on the “senior White House official,” threatening to publish a disparaging Washington Post op-ed. Coercion between journalists and government officials goes both ways.
Journalists like Woodward like to throw their weight around, hinting, intimating and outright coercing information or access out of government officials. Conservative Washington journalist Bob Novak used to get all the dirt on Democrats needed to discredit the liberal crowd. When he wrote a Washington Post column July 14, 2003 outing covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, he helped former Vice President Dick Cheney retaliate against her husband Amb. Joe Wilson for saying former President George W. Bush lied in his Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union Speech about Saddam Hussein buying yellocake uranium from Niger. Journalists routinely dig up dirt on government officials and coerce them into more access or concessions. Journalists often accuse government officials of coercion, when, in fact, they’re doing exactly the same thing.
Woodward’s complaints about an argument with one White House official indicates that he’s burned out on the Washington beat. “What does that matter now? Not much,” said senior White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer regarding who caused the sequester, not denying that Plouffe got into it with Woodward. “What is true now is that Republicans have decided that the sequester should go into effect,” said Pfeiffer, choosing cuts rather than closing loopholes. Pfeiffer knew after Obama cut the “fiscal cliff” deal Jan. 1 there’d be no more tax hikes, including closing tax loopholes. Woodward’s comments about the White House “moving the goalposts” aren’t too far off. Instead of begging the GOP for more tax hikes, Obama should explain that improvements in the economy with more tax receipts and lowered deficits no longer require spending cuts to balance the federal budget.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.