Bob Woodward Has Now Picked the Most and Least Important Fights With a POTUS

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The famous reporter made sure Richard Nixon was held accountable to the law, but he's urging Barack Obama to break it.

Bob woodward full.jpg
Reuters

Since Bob Woodward emerged as America's most famous journalist, after breaking the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, he's existed in the popular imagination as the Platonic ideal of the investigative journalist, watching all the president's men lest they run afoul of the law.


The reputation persists, even though he played a rather different role during the Bush years. And today, as the political press buzzes about his strange spat with the Obama Administration, it's worth noticing that the Washington establishment's most esteemed newspaperman isn't complaining that this White House is exceeding its proper bounds. On the contrary, he is criticizing the administration for planning to adhere to a law that Congress passed and President Obama signed.

I refer to the automatic cuts to spending scheduled to take effect -- cuts that, according to the Obama Administration, will prevent America from sending a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Via TPM, here's how Woodward reacted to those cuts on Morning Joe:
Take one example here where President Obama came out and acknowledged that we're not sending the aircraft carrier Truman to the Persian Gulf because of this budget agreement .... Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, "Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?" Or George W. Bush saying, "You know, I'm not gonna invade Iraq, because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?" Or even Bill Clinton saying, "You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters" -- as he did when Clinton was president -- because of some budget document? Under the Constitution, the president is commander in chief and employs the force. And so we now have the president going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time.
Slate's Dave Weigel is incredulous that Woodward is "asking why the president won't simply ignore a law that he signed." So am I. "That's the law," Weigel writes. "Congress could always change the law, but Woodward's not having that -- he says it's 'madness' for the president to obey the law."

As best as I can tell, Woodward's remarks are premised on the radical notion that, if the president thinks he needs to do something "to protect the country," he shouldn't let Congress stop him, even with the power of the purse, the one check even the likes of John Yoo generally acknowledge. Notice that sending a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf isn't even an action that would be taken to address an imminent threat to the country. Apparently, Woodward is incredulous that Obama won't ignore the law to arguably make us incrementally safer.

Listening to establishment Washington's political and journalistic elites, you'd swear that the Oath of Office taken by all presidents says, "I pledge, above all else, to keep America safe at all costs." Actually, the oath is to "faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." In a Madisonian system of checks and balances, there are bound to be cases, even in the realm of national security, where the three branches disagree about what safety requires or entails. If the president thinks another aircraft carrier is necessary and Congress won't fund its operation he can't just run it anyway. He is not the all-powerful emperor of all things related to national security.

You'd think conservatives would be aghast at a Washington Post journalist telling Obama that he should just disregard budget cuts duly passed by the legislature. But the neoconservative wing basically agrees that the president should wield emperor-like powers in the realm of national security, especially if it means more spending on military assets in the Persian Gulf. And other movement conservatives? Well, Woodward's name has cachet, and he's fighting with Obama.

Thus conservatives ignore Woodward's advice on the defense cuts while reflexively taking his side in a spat-within-a-spat that I can hardly bear to summarize. Okay, here goes. You know the legislation that Congress passed and Obama signed that had an automatic trigger for really "painful" cuts if everyone didn't get together and reach some kind of alternative deficit reduction deal? Well, Washington, D.C., political insiders are obsessed with arguing about who is at fault for it. Team Obama thought it up. There is a public record of every individual legislator who voted for the plan. Obama signed it. As my colleague Molly Ball astutely points out, the supercommittee's members bear blame too. So there you go: The sequester wouldn't have been possible but for Obama and the legislators who voted for it and the supercommittee's failures.

Who to blame is easy!

But rather than having forward-looking arguments about the best way to govern our way out of the present situation, the political press permits itself to be manipulated into backward looking spin wars waged by partisans trying to skew perceptions about whose past behavior will be most blameworthy in the event that everything goes to hell, making that outcome much more likely.

Into this counterproductive discussion about who bears blame for the sequester, and whether Obama is "moving the goal posts" in negotiations to avoid it, Woodward inserted himself. Why is one of the best-sourced reporters in D.C. spending his time trying to adjudicate the margins of a dispute that has no bearing on the best policy to adopt, and is of interest almost exclusively to political junkies who have an irrational investment in spin wars? If I understood that, I would be the dean of Washington journalism instead of Ezra Klein.  

All I can tell you is that Woodward decided that Obama is "moving the goal posts," which upset one of Woodward's sources at the White House, who apparently yelled at Woodward during a phone call.

Here's Politico on what happened next:
Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. "I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today," the official typed. "You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. ... I think you will regret staking out that claim."
At this point, you're asking, "Why is Conor telling us about this banal give-and-take between a reporter and a nameless aide?" Well, dear reader, on the basis of that email, Woodward is now running around claiming that he was being threatened by the White House. "I mean, it makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters, you're going to regret doing something that you believe in," he told CNN. Elsewhere he added, "Suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years' -- or 10 years' -- experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, 'You're going to regret this. You know, tremble, tremble."

It makes me uncomfortable that Obama has extrajudicially killed American citizens in secret, spied without a warrant on the private information of millions of innocents, blatantly violated the War Powers Act, asserted the power to indefinitely detain Americans without trial, and waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers. But thank goodness that Woodward is bravely speaking up against the terrifying phrase "I think you will regret staking out that claim." It's so nice to know that you can count on the elder statesmen of journalism to take to TV to voice dissent on the really important stuff. Won't democracy be safer if Woodward gets his way, so that the Obama Administration is both more deferential to reporters and flouts legitimate legal mandates?

And thank goodness that the movement-conservative press, which cedes to Obama so many radical, easily abused powers, is now speaking up for Woodward as if he's in danger of becoming a political prisoner.

To the barricades Drudge goes:
drudge woodward.pngA lot of political journalists, all of whom have dealt with pushback on stories a lot more intense than "I think you will regret staking out that claim," reacted to this story by expressing skepticism of Woodward. How has Breitbart.com reported that? "Media Gang-Tackle Iconic Journalist to Save Obama." (To save him from what?) On Los Angeles talk radio station KFI, I heard a host Wednesday night insisting that Woodward is more scared now than he was during Watergate.

The funny thing is that, personally, I'd love for Woodward to get permanently angry at Obama and spill all the scandalous, source-burning information he doubtless possesses, rather than staying on good terms with the president so we can all read an access-rich but fawning book in two years. What I refuse to let stand is the inane narrative that bravely standing up to Obama looks like what Woodward is doing, as opposed to what Charlie Savage or Glenn Greenwald do. Woodward is involved in an insiders' spat with Obama, who he wants to wield more power

If conservatives want to take Obama to task for interfering in the ability of the political press to hold him accountable, there is plenty of fodder. To seize on this story instead is a sign of either deep ignorance or profound cynicism, or perhaps both at the same time. And just as the conservative media is showing its worst side as this unfolds, so too is the rest of the political press, which obsesses over the personalities and the perceptions that surround sequester negotiations in a way that gives everyone involved ample incentive to keep ignoring the substance. Its bad enough to cover elections with such a "horse race" emphasis; now the process of governing itself, even in the immediate aftermath of an election, is being covered that way.

UPDATE: Politico says it has the allegedly threatening email, and it makes Woodward's account of events look even more dubious.

White House aide Gene Sperling:

I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall -- but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.

But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding -- from the start.

The rest at Politico, with what it says was Woodward's response:
Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved.
Your move, Bob Woodward. Hint: Follow the drones.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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