Why are Bob Woodward and the White House arguing over the sequester?

The blame-game over who’s responsible for the 'sequester' and its automatic spending cuts finds journalistic icon Bob Woodward, engaged in a dispute with the White House.

Chris Kleponis/CNN/AP
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward shown on CNN's "Larry King Live" in 2004. Woodward and the White House have been arguing about the sequester and its across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to hit Friday.

The blame-game over who’s responsible for the “sequester” and its automatic spending cuts – which everyone agrees is a terrible way to run Washington’s business – finds journalistic icon and Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward at the center of the controversy, engaged in a shouting (or at least tweeting) match with the White House.

The essence of the flap is Woodward’s assertion that Obama administration officials (and the President himself) fathered the notion of sequestration as a way of forcing all hands in Washington to come up with a rational spending cut and revenue plan for reducing the federal deficit, and that Obama had “moved the goal posts” on budget negotiations by seeking new revenues to accompany spending cuts.

White House press secretary Jay Carney calls Woodward’s charge in a Washington Post op-ed column Sunday “willfully wrong.”

Sequester 101: What happens if $85 billion in cuts hit on March 1

Elaborating in a statement Sunday, the White House said, “There has never been any question that the President seeking revenues as part of a plan to replace the automatic cuts in the sequester was expected from the very beginning in the 2011 fiscal negotiations and the passage of the Budget Control Act. That the President today is seeking a balanced plan to replace it with revenues and entitlement reforms cannot in even the slightest way be considered a change of policy, a change of expectations, or moving the goalposts.”

To which Woodward responded in an email to Politico: "The White House pushback is a classic case of distortion and confusion.”

"We unfortunately have seen this too often in recent presidential history,” he emailed. “I do not think it is willful. They are just mixed up, surprisingly so."

Since this is Oscar night, we pause to note that in an earlier drama Woodward was played by Robert Redford in the 1976 movie about how he and Carl Bernstein – Dustin Hoffman on screen – unearthed the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, launching a generation of would-be investigative reporters and securing tenure for their journalism professors.

In other words, Woodward has been famous forever, writing book after book about government and politics, secure in the knowledge that just about everyone in Washington – from presidents on down – are likely to sit down for an interview or whisper in his ear.

His web site notes that, “Woodward has co-authored or authored twelve #1 national best-selling non-fiction books – more than any contemporary American writer.”

Bob Schieffer of CBS News has said that, “Woodward has established himself as the best reporter of our time. He may be the best reporter of all time.” (That’s also noted on Woodward’s web site.)

In other words, Bob Woodward is a big deal in Washington, so when he takes on the White House so publicly, people pay attention.

Republicans, quite naturally, watch gleefully as Woodward and the White House wrestle rhetorically. House Speaker John Boehner now speaks of “Obamaquester” – even though a majority of Republicans voted for the Budget Control Act, which included the sequester.

Not surprisingly, the fight has generated critical analysis of Woodward’s reporting and commentary on what happened back in 2011 when the threat of sequestration – cutting $85 billion from defense and non-defense programs – became part of the public lexicon.

Slate political reporter David Weigel says Woodward’s own book on the subject (“The Price of Politics”) debunks his Washington Post op-ed column.

“To argue that the White House is ‘moving the goal posts’ when it now asks for revenue in a sequestration replacement, you have to toss out the fact that the White House always wanted revenue in the supercommittee's sequestration replacement,” Weigel writes. “This isn't confusing unless reporters make it confusing.”

Talking Points Memo senior congressional reporter Brian Beutler asserts that “Woodward is just dead wrong.”

“Obama and Democrats have always insisted that a balanced mix of spending cuts and higher taxes replace sequestration,” Beutler writes. “It’s true that John Boehner wouldn’t agree to include new taxes in the enforcement mechanism itself, and thus that the enforcement mechanism he and Obama settled upon – sequestration – is composed exclusively of spending cuts.”

“But the entire purpose of an enforcement mechanism is to make sure that the enforcement mechanism is never triggered,” he continues. “The key question is what action it was designed to compel. And on that score, the Budget Control Act is unambiguous.”

Does that clear things up for you?

Woodward says he’d be happy to discuss this with a representative of the White House and a representative from Boehner's office at one of the breakfasts sponsored by Politico and streamed live online. “I will even pay for the toast, bagels and coffee, he writes.

We can hardly wait.

Sequester 101: What happens if $85 billion in cuts hit on March 1

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