Gene Sperling once intimidated me.
It happened in the West Wing, in 2011, during a discussion about the federal budget. I suggested the Obama Administration was not doing enough to protect Medicare. Sperling got in my face, leaned into me with the entirety of his five-foot-five frame, and unleashed a verbal torrent. Had I noticed the president protected low-income seniors? Had I read the full text of the fiscal 2012 budget proposal? Had I seen the latest microeconomic forecasts? The statistical assault went on for minutes—searing, painful minutes—and I've never quite gotten over it. At night, when I'm trying to fall asleep, sometimes I hear Sperling's Midwestern twang, taunting me with obscure citations from the Congressional Budget Office.
I might never have had the courage to speak up about this, if Bob Woodward hadn't broken the silence that Sperling's victims have long maintained. In an interview with Politico, Woodward talked about his own difficult encounter with Sperling. It came via e-mail: If Woodward proceeded with an article claiming that Obama had "moved the goalposts" in budget negotiations, Sperling warned, Woodward would "regret" it. "They have to be willing to live in the world where they're challenged," Woodward told Politico, adding later. "I don't think this is the way to operate." 1
Am I making light of this controversy? Yeah, I am. I don't deny the real, if wonkish, ferocity Sperling can bring to his arguments. I also don't question the journalistic acumen Woodward brings to his projects. But Woodward's great talent has always been assembling the facts, not analyzing them.2 Lately he's come to symbolize many of Washington journalism's worst habits, among them the tendency to mistake access for insight—and to take what sources say as gospel. This latest episode is a perfect illustration.
As you probably know by now, Woodward and the White House have been criticizing each other over the history and meaning of budget sequestration, the automatic spending cuts set to take effect on Friday. It was in the course of that ongoing debate that Sperling and Woodward apparently had a conversation in which Sperling raised his voice. Afterwards, he sent Woodward the now-infamous e-mail—the one that Woodward read aloud during his interview with Politico. (To be fair to Woodward, he never used the word "threat." That came from the Politico writers, Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei.)
The idea that a thin-skinned Obama Administration adviser would try to bully a critical reporter is hardly far-fetched. They do it, just like their predecessors in the Bush administration did and their counterparts on Capitol Hill still do. Woodward himself has been accused of similar tactics, as Jason Zengerle reminds us. But the email exchange between Sperling and Woodward isn't an example of such treatment. On the contrary, it's an example of how sources and reporters should communicate.
The bulk of Sperling’s note is about policy substance—the specific history of how the sequester came to be and what assumptions each side made about it. The rest is almost embarrassingly contrite about the previous conversation the two men had: "I apologize" … "my bad" … "my apologies again" … "feel bad about that and truly apologize." When Sperling says Woodward may "regret" taking a different opinion, he clearly means that Woodward may regret being wrong. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the note’s real tone, and how it was interpreted in real time, is Woodward's equally polite and gracious response. "Gene," Woodward writes, "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 serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat." (You can read the full exchange at BuzzFeed or Politico.)
This controversy has deflected attention away from the underlying substantive dispute, which is significant. Woodward maintains that Obama is responsible for the cuts—because his advisers proposed it, because he hasn't reached a deal with Republicans to avoid it, and because his demand for new revenue is unreasonable. But when Obama proposed the sequester, he wasn't trying to extort Republicans. In fact, he was reacting to extortion: Republicans were threatening to not raise the debt ceiling, creating economic chaos. In any event, Republicans agreed to the cuts and House Speaker John Boehner explicitly defended them. Whether Democrats or Republicans have been more intransigent is obviously a subjective question, but evidence of Republican unwillingness to negotiate keeps coming out—most recently in Ryan Lizza's New Yorker profile of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In it, Cantor says he was the one who persuaded Speaker John Boehner to scuttle talks over a grand bargain, so that the two sides could fight about fiscal priorities in the election. As for "moving the goalposts," Obama and his allies were, from the very beginning, calling to replace the sequestration cuts with a package that includes revenue, just as Republicans have been calling to replace the sequester with a package that includes cuts to entitlement benefits.
Obama and his advisers should not be above criticism—not as a matter of principle and not when it comes to the sequestration debate itself. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, for example, argues in the Financial Times that Obama made two key mistakes—first, vowing never to raise taxes on people making less than $250,000 a year and, second, proposing his own deep cuts to discretionary spending. The tax threshold is still below what Republicans would countenance and the discretionary cuts are not as steep as the ones the sequester would impose. But those pledges, Sachs says, set a tone for the political debate that makes raising taxes harder and cutting spending easier.
Sachs makes a valid argument, much as Woodward’s reporting adds to our understanding of what actually happened in 2011. Woodward remains among the best fact-gatherers in the business. But making an argument means understanding what those facts mean. And in the debate about fiscal policy, as with the e-mail exchange, Woodward seems to have made some rather odd conclusions.