Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Obama, Clinton, Woodward, Branch

Much chatter today about Bob Woodward's portrayal in his forthcoming Obama's Wars of division and debate in Obama's foreign policy team. The Times' Peter Baker emphasizes the negative:  Biden calls Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met." Holbrooke says the strategy in Afghanistan can't work, Gates says that Jim Jones' deputy Thomas Donilon would be "a disaster" as national security advisor. Bush apologists like Mark Thiessen are having a field day.

I recall reading The Agenda, Woodward's book on Bill Clinton's first year in office, which makes the tortuous process by which the administration shaped its first budget and squeaked it through Congress look like a chaotic, raggedy mess. That was the budget that put the U.S.on course for its greatest peacetime economic expansion in decades. Of the process and Woodward's treatment of it, Clinton had this to say to Taylor Branch, as reported in Branch's The Clinton Tapes:
What upset him was an obsessive focus on style above substance, especially in media discussion of The Agenda.  Debates within his administration were lampooned as contests of seesaw mismanagement suited to a romper room, full of temper tantrums and panicky showdowns pitting "true Democrats" against coldhearted bankers, or realists against doctrinaire liberals. The president objected first to exaggeration. He said fierce argument is healthy for free government--and infighting inherent--even on small matters. "It's the nature of the beast," he said. By fair comparison with the hacks of many administrations, or even the talented backstabbers around Lincoln and FDR, the president called his budget advisers models of decorous public service. Their victory in Congress had momentous stakes for every citizen. Could the package really tame our deficit? Might we dare to balance the national budget for the first time in two generations?  At what cost? How would it affect tomorrow's grandchildren to be spared trillions in public debt? [Ai!] Clinton lamented that the Woodward reviews ignored these core questions. They buried the central issue under a mountain of finger pointing and factional score-keeping (166).
Note the conflation in Clinton's complaint of what was actually in the book -- and it did paint a chaotic picture -- and the media caricature of it. There may be a greater gap between the two in the refraction of Woodward's latest (which needless to say, I haven't read yet).  Mike Allen asserts that "the book is net-positive for Obama, portraying him as thoughtful, decisive, seeking advice, and knowing what he knows and what he doesn't."  Moreover, the context has changed since Clinton's time in that Bush was widely criticized for not encouraging open debate. Allen suggests that Obama & co. are banking on that memory: 
The White House knew from its predecessors' experiences that it had to manage the process with Woodward or get burned, and the cooperation paid off. The headlines from the book are being driven by administration divisions over last year's Afghanistan-Pakistan review that the White House TOUTED at the time (in an intended contrast with Bush, and effort to build support for the eventual policy across the political spectrum) as a sign that the president was considering alternatives and welcomed debate.
We all know that Obama "does nuance." Does Woodward, in this book? Can the media?


  1. Thank you for noticing this passage. Too many citizens never get into thought or sacrifice beyond familiar labels and complaints.
    Taylor Branch

  2. Taylor Branch, thank you for stopping at xpostfactoid. How the battles of the Clinton years that you recount so vividly resonate at this moment! As I indicated in one post, I imagine the parallels were already taking shape as you were writing -- though since The Clinton Tapes was published in '09, perhaps the bulk was written before the Obama administration started?