Bob Woodward vs. the White House: Who's right in 'sequester' smackdown?

The White House is taking public issue with veteran journalist Bob Woodward over his words about about the origin and nature of the 'sequester.' Both sides have points, but there are at least three reasons Team Obama might regret this match.

Chris Kleponis, CNN/AP/File
Author and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward shown on CNN's "Larry King Live," from the CNN studio in Washington in this file photo.

Bob Woodward and the White House have suddenly become embroiled in a very public shoving match over stuff the legendary Washington Post reporter has said about the origin and nature of the "sequester."

Mr. Woodward says the administration is being touchy and aggressive and trying to intimidate him. “They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” he told Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei on Wednesday.

President Obama’s supporters in essence say Woodward is a has-been who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Ex-Obama senior adviser David Plouffe on Twitter Wednesday night wrote, “Watching Woodward last 2 days is like my imagining my idol [Phillies 3rd baseman] Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated.”

Who’s right here? This is a squabble for which official Washington is buying popcorn, pulling up a chair, and taking sides, after all.

Both sides have points but we’ll try to sort some things out. Woodward’s basic substantive charges about the sequester are that it was the administration’s idea to begin with, and that the White House has “moved the goal posts” by now insisting on new tax revenue as well as spending cuts to reach further deficit-reduction goals.

The former is true. Administration officials did come up with the sequester idea as a way to try to force Congress to agree to those deficit-reduction figures. The White House pretty much acknowledges this but adds that it is kind of irrelevant, because it was House Republicans who were holding the debt-ceiling increase hostage at the time. If Speaker John Boehner et al had not been doing that there would have been no need for sequestration, Q.E.D. Plus, it wasn’t supposed to ever go into effect.

The latter Woodward charge is more open to debate. Speaker Boehner may have thought that the “grand bargain” deficit-reduction package he nearly struck with the White House back in 2011 was all about budget cuts. But the administration pretty clearly thought more tax revenue would be included as well.

Slate’s Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias writes Thursday that the deficit-reduction effort that might hold off sequestration has always been an undefined rough beast that both sides want to shape to their own preferences.

“Either everyone’s moving the goalposts (which I think is tendentious but even-handed) or no one is moving them,” writes Mr. Yglesias.

Now for the shoving part. Politico revealed Wednesday that Gene Sperling, economic adviser to Mr. Obama, e-mailed Woodward last week suggesting that the journalist would “regret” his comments.

“I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today ... but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest ... as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim,” wrote Mr. Sperling.

Was Sperling being too pushy here? The word “regret” is used in a context that is open to several interpretations. At first glance, it just seems as if Sperling is saying Woodward will regret his statements because he (Sperling) thinks they will later be proved wrong. But e-mail strips out emotion and nuance. We don’t know what that raised-voice conversation was like.

We’ll say this: If nothing else, it’s spectacularly bad press management by Sperling.

First of all, Bob Woodward is all about trees, as opposed to forests. Nobody is better on trees than he is. Usually, if he says it’s an ash, it’s an ash, even if it’s got needles. It will turn out to be a rare Siberian pointy-leaf variant of an ash. That is how Woodward got to be who he is: picking up details and following their trail. If you want to talk forests, get somebody else. That's why he's a much better reporter than analyst.

So don’t pick at him about details. Try to convince him that you’ve got another detail he needs to add.

Second, he does not respond well to yelling of any sort. If he did he would have left Washington long ago. When was the last time you heard about Carl Bernstein? Woodward thrives on opposition. It makes him, as it does many veteran reporters, feel as if he’s on the right track. Years ago he wrote a book on John Belushi called “Wired,” with the cooperation of many of the actor’s family members and friends. But then Belushi’s widow realized Woodward was set to depict her late husband’s extensive drug use. She campaigned against the book, to no avail. Woodward was adamant and all she managed to do was bring more attention to Belushi’s habits.

That’s the third point here: The White House quite likely will come out on the short end of this, public-relations-wise, especially if it continues to deal with Woodward just by trying to talk louder than he does.

Arguing with a famous reporter about the process that led us into this mess is not going to help the administration push Congress to act. And it gives gleeful conservatives a chance to link Obama with another president who tangled with Woodward.

“Barack Obama is becoming the Democrats’ Richard Nixon,” writes conservative commentator Erick Erickson Thursday on Redstate.

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