Watergate journalist vs. Obama

President Obama and his administration have picked a fight with the legendary reporter who broke the Watergate story, Bob Woodward.  The journalist criticized the way the president is handling the “sequester” issue–including pointing out that the automatic spending cuts were the president’s idea in the first place–whereupon all the president’s men put him on the enemy list.  Are there other ways that Obama is like Nixon?

From Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei at Politico:

Bob Woodward called a senior White House official last week to tell him that in a piece in that weekend’s Washington Post, he was going to question President Barack Obama’s account of how sequestration came about — and got a major-league brushback. The Obama aide “yelled at me for about a half-hour,” Woodward told us in an hourlong interview yesterday around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington’s powerful have spilled their secrets.

Digging into one of his famous folders, 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.”

Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’”

“They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. “I’ve tangled with lots of these people. But 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. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”. . .

A White House official said: “Of course no threat was intended. As Mr. Woodward noted, the email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation.”

Woodward — first in “The Price of Politics,” his best-seller on the failed quest for a grand budget bargain, and later with his opinion piece in the Post — makes plain that sequestration was an idea crafted by the White House. Obama personally approved the plan and later signed it into law. Woodward was right, several congressional officials involved in the talks told us. . . .

The feud also feeds a larger narrative because, like many others, Woodward thinks this is a very thin-skinned White House that does not like being challenged on the facts. He said that explains the senior aide’s in-your-face email. “I think when they get their rear end in a crack here, they become defensive,” he said. “This could be a huge issue if the economy takes a hit. And people are going to go back and say exactly what happened and who did it and so forth.”

The Woodward reporting has caused the White House spin machine to sputter at a crucial time. The president was running around the country, campaign-style, warning that Republicans were at fault for the massive cuts set to hit Friday. What Obama never says: It was his own staff that proposed sequestration, and the tax hikes he now proposes — aimed at replacing half of the cuts — were never part of that very specific plan.

The White House instead has, with great success, fudged the facts. The administration has convinced a majority of the country that Republicans are more to blame by emphasizing that Republicans voted for the plan. Which they did — after Obama conceived it.The truth is that Obama and Republicans supported it because everyone believed it was a such a stupid idea that the grown-ups in Washington would never actually let it happen. They thought Obama and Congress would come up with a grand bargain on spending, entitlement cuts and tax increases, instead of allowing the sequestration ax to fall. They were wrong.

So the blame game is in full swing — and Woodward is smack in the middle of it. The Obama White House is out to discredit him. Behind the scenes, Obama allies are spreading word that the Woodward book broadly — and his reporting on sequestration specifically — are misleading because Republicans, especially House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, were so clearly among the chief sources.

It is no secret on Capitol Hill that Cantor and his staff cooperated extensively with Woodward. It is fairly obvious as you breeze through the opening chapters of the book. But we have talked with many Democrats and Republicans who cooperated with the book. And all of them say that while they might dispute some of the broader analytical points Woodward makes, the play-by-play is basically spot on. . . .

Watching and now having interviewed Woodward, it is easy to see why White House officials get worked up about him. He clearly is skeptical of Obama’s approach to the job. “I’m not sure he fully understands the power he has,” Woodward said. “He sees that the power is the public megaphone going around to these campaign-like events, which is real, but the audience he needs to deal with is on this issue of the sequester and these budget issues is John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.” .  . .

Woodward, who helped bring down one presidency and has written instant history on every one since, added: “Color me a little baffled. I don’t understand this White House. Do you?”

via Behind the Curtain: Bob Woodward at war – POLITICO.com.

How do you account for this kind of response from the White House?  Is it a sense of betrayal that someone in the mainstream media is disobeying the party line for once?

UPDATE:  For helpful inside perspective on the kerfluffle, see Kathleen Parker’s “Why the ‘Threat’ to Bob Woodward Matters.”

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  • DonS

    To answer Dr. Veith’s question, “Yes”. Clearly, the answer is yes.

    Of course, our esteemed Fourth Estate instantly jumped to the administration’s defense by attacking Mr. Woodward. Even the icon of liberal journalism treads dangerous ground when he dares challenge, even in the most mild way, this administration.

  • Tom Hering

    I think the right will regret this. I don’t mean that as a threat. I mean it the way Gene Sperling clearly meant it in his e-mail to Woodward: the right is going to make itself look foolish in the end. Outside their bubble, anyways.

  • rlewer

    Woodward is now a member of the “right?” How interesting!

    He was a darling of the media until he used facts against “The One.” Now he is being attacked by the media as being senile, among other things. Typical.

  • Can’t say I’m surprised by this. This is the trend of all political hardliners, be they Democrat or Republican: the accusational assertion is only true when it’s directed at the other side of the aisle.

  • Joe

    Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton and now a political commentator who generally supports Obama, has this to say about the Obama administrations attempts to silence reporters with threats:

    his editor, John Solomon, “received a phone call from a senior Obama White House official who didn’t like some of my columns, even though I’m a supporter of Obama. I couldn’t imagine why this call was made.” Davis says the Obama aide told Solomon, “that if he continued to run my columns, he would lose, or his reporters would lose their White House credentials.”


  • Jeremiah

    Just thought it would be useful to have the messages exchanged as published at POLITICO as part of its followup on the story for reference in the discussion. Hope its useful!


  • rlewer

    Even Lanny Davis is not allowed to disagree with “The One.” Even the left is not allowed to stray off the plantation. Losing credentials is a major threat. Did even Nixon go that far?

  • fjsteve

    Tom, what did ‘the Right” do to regret? Did they mislead the public, as the President did? Did they expose the President, as Woodward did?

  • fdc

    I find it interesting that one of advertisements with your blog post is one paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for “Support President Obama’s Agenda.” Then there’s another of a FB chat of a babe looking for a boyfriend. Did you know that? Insidious, isn’t it?

  • fjsteve


    Sorry, I have a Virgin American airline ad and a T-Mobile ad. Are you sure this isn’t more a reflection of your browsing habits?

  • Steven Bauer

    What Obama never says: It was (a) his own staff that proposed sequestration, and (b) the tax hikes he now proposes — aimed at replacing half of the cuts — were never part of that very specific plan.

    a) This is a non-issue that only illustrates the complete intellectual bankruptcy of both sides.
    b) This is a groundless accusation. The “very specific” sequester plan is entirely different than a proposal to avert the sequester. Putting forward a sequester without tax hikes is not a promise to offer an alternative to the sequester that does not include tax hikes.

  • rlewer

    We had the tax hikes in January. Now is the time for spending cuts. It is that simple.

  • fjsteve

    Steven @ 11,

    a) I don’t think any event that “illustrates the complete intellectual bankruptcy of both sides” of our political system is a “non-event”. But, more to the point, it was Obama’s economic team that proposed the sequestration plan as an incentive to stay under the debt ceiling and both Reid and Boehner opposed it until being swayed by, again, the White House. So, Obama now calling the cuts “dumb”, and blaming Republicans for it is more than a bit disingenuous. The very nature of the sequestration plan relied on political fear-mongering, and Obama did his part well, but the bluff didn’t work. Yes, it’s a worthy effort to assign blame to an 85 billion dollar bluff, especially when the bluffers are trying to rewrite history.

  • fjsteve

    “non-event” above should read “non-issue”

  • Woodward is getting a dose of liberal’s “tolerance”.