The Price of Politics by Bob Woodward

15801034Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 380 pgs. Borrowed from family member.

Woodward’s twelfth book covers the 2011 debt ceiling crisis in the United States, a particularly partisan time in American politics where neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were willing to compromise to reach an agreement over raising the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, neither party had enough votes to ram their own bill through both the House of Representatives and the Senate since control was held by the Republicans and the Democrats, respectively.

President Barack Obama was threatening to veto any bill that did not include tax increases, and representatives from the Tea Party were flat out refusing to raise the ceiling or pass a bill that did not include a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Under United States law, the government can only spend as much money as it has sufficient funds for; these funds come from tax receipts or from borrowing by the US Department of the Treasury.

Normally, a failure to raise to debt ceiling would result in a government shutdown comparable to a failure to pass a budget. However, the poor economic climate both here and abroad (particularly in the European Union) caused politicians and economists to raise concerns that failure to raise the debt ceiling would cause the US to enter into (sovereign) default and leader to further crisis in the financial markets. Even after an agreement was reached to raise the debt ceiling, as outlined in this book, the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of the US government from a stellar triple-A rating to AA. This rating is meant to symbolize the reliability of US government bonds, and the downgrade caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to plunge 635 points (or 5.6%) in one day. This aspect isn’t covered in the book, but it’s a civics lesson to have in mind as you read this book. Yes, it means you’re reading this account with the hindsight of history, but I think this outcome is important to keep in mind with the election just around the corner.

If you are under the impression that this book is about the debt ceiling showdown between Obama and the Republicans, you would be mistaken. Woodward’s book actually comes down to two very interesting aspects of politics in Washington today – Vice President Joe Biden as the negotiator and infighting with the Republican Party, particularly between Speaker John Boehner and former House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.  This is not the book to paint President Obama (or his administration, for that matter) in a positive light; Obama comes off as a completely ineffectual, partisan negotiator. The same can be said about Boehner, Cantor, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, and the rest of the Republican Party. The only person who comes even close to being seen as effective is Biden, who is referred to as the Mitch “McConnell Whisper” within the White House, and known for his ability to negotiate in a bipartisan manner.

I really felt like a fly on the wall during the debt negotiations! Woodward offers the reader a front row sit in negotiations between Democrats, between Republicans, across the aisle, and at the Treasury. The personal responses Woodward is sprinkles within his book make what might be a very dry read actually quite fascinating. For example, current vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was invited by the Obama Administration to a speech by the President at George Washington University in which he would unveil his own budget bill. Ryan, in his reserved seat in the front row, was expecting an olive branch. Instead, Obama stood on stage and ripped Ryan’s budget apart. He later said he did not know Ryan was in attendance, but Ryan left the event angry and vowing to never work with the President again. This one example drives home Woodward’s overall point and explains much of the current election cycle.

Final thoughts? I really want my dad to check out Woodward’s book from our public library and read it for himself. I’d love to discuss this book with my favorite politico.

The Honors Project:

I read this book for The Honors Project, my own personal challenge to read more books about economics, food, and/or geography in preparation for writing my honors thesis. My goal for this project is to learn as much as I can about these topics so I can formulate better questions and, in turn, produce a better honors thesis. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

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