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.