A week ago, the White House was absolutely sure that its position on the sequester would prevail and that the Republicans would soon be surrendering on the president’s demands for even more new taxes in order to avoid the implementation of the draconian across-the-board budget cuts. Most of the press, backed by polls that showed the unpopularity of Republicans, agreed. But the discussion has shifted a bit in the last few days and the administration’s confidence in its ability to prevail in this political struggle has to be slightly shaken, even if they are not publicly admitting it. Part of the president’s problem is that the attempts of the secretaries of transportation and homeland security to scare the public about airport delays and the border if the sequester went ahead sounded fake and appeared to be politically motivated. But just as important was the intervention into the debate of an icon of liberal journalism: the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
Woodward’s op-ed reminded the public that the sequester was the White House’s idea and that any attempt to include a request for more taxes into the discussion of putting it off was “moving the goalposts.” While seemingly just one voice among many talking heads, the Woodward assertions touched a nerve in the White House and set off a furious back-and-forth argument that betrayed the administration’s sensitivity to criticism as well as a thuggish intolerance for anyone who would try to alter their hand-crafted narrative about the issue. Most of the attention on this spat today is focused on a senior White House official’s threat to Woodward that he would “regret” contradicting the president’s chosen spin.
This has provoked a discussion about how this administration and its predecessors have used threats about future access to intimidate journalists. This is a long and unfortunate tradition, and it often works when applied to less influential persons than the man who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the film account of his Watergate reporting that took down Richard Nixon. But there is more at work here than just a case of White House flacks picking a fight with the wrong guy. The problem here for President Obama is that the willingness of Woodward to expose the falsity of the administration’s position on the sequester, as well as their threat, could mark the beginning of the end of the administration’s magic touch with the mainstream press.
Last week, Politico’s feature on the ability of the Obama White House to manipulate the coverage they received generated a heated discussion about whether the supine attitude of mainstream journalists toward the president was the result of clever tactics and not, as they claimed, liberal bias. I agreed that the administration had broken new ground in employing smart ways to bypass and frustrate the working press, but pointed out the obvious fact that these strategies wouldn’t work half so well if the vast majority of the publications and networks that employ the journalists weren’t happy to roll over for Obama. No president has received the sort of adulation and fawning coverage from the mainstream since the halcyon days of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot White House.
While the Woodward rebellion hasn’t really altered that reality, it is a sign that his expectation that he will be treated with kid gloves for four more years may not be fulfilled. That the administration is pushing back so hard on Woodward betrays their worry that if the Watergate icon can get away with saying the emperor has no clothes, lesser mortals will soon be tempted to do it too.
As important as the sequester may be, this spat is about more than just that issue. The White House has assumed all along that its narrative about the budget cuts and the need for more taxes–even after the recent hikes enacted to avert the fiscal cliff as well as the raise in payroll deductions–would never be contradicted by what has been their active cheering section in the press corps.
As Max pointed out, there are good reasons to fear the effect of the sequester. But the idea that the president can bulldoze his way through Republican opposition to his big government agenda armed with the notion that the public and the media will unite behind him has been shaken. Today, even the still loyal New York Times admitted the public might not be panicked into pressuring the Republicans into submission. If the White House is today waging an unexpected war on Bob Woodward, it is because they fear the beginning of the end of their four-year honeymoon with the media.