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When Washington Tries to 'Win the Day,' Americans Lose

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"Win the day" is a common refrain in politics. Win enough days and you win the campaign/debate as the logic goes. The Price of Politics, the new book by Bob Woodward, chronicles Washington's failure to compromise on a strategy to spur the economy while reining in widening deficits. It centers around the big policy fights from President Obama's first term: health care, stimulus, the debt ceiling and tax cuts but the strategy at the heart of it all: "win the day." The result is a president and Congress too focused on what the other side is doing wrong and too timid to make bold decisions or compromises needed to get our economy back on track.

Woodward's book depicts a president confident in the power of his own ideas but ill-equipped to manage the complex negotiations necessary to achieve consensus among legislators, even those in his own party. Members of Congress come to the negotiating table already held hostage to the partisans and interest groups that dominate their parties and thus unmotivated to work together. And no one has much concern about the promises they made to get elected in the first place. All that matters is minimizing liabilities and gaining the upper hand politically.

There is a notable moment of timidity early in Obama's presidency when he is meeting with Democratic Congressional leaders on health care reform. Around midnight, House and Senate leaders were unable to agree on specifics for a final bill. Frustrated, Obama snapped at the group, "None of you are listening ... It is very clear there is nothing I can do to help you." He left and went to bed. As the group began to head out, then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel went through the proposals from both sides, line by line, and created a framework for a compromise. This was a shocking revelation, the president walking out on his top legislative priority. He was eager to lead but unwilling to do the hard work of leadership.

This wasn't the only instance of the administration's complete abdication of responsibility. The Bowles-Simpson commission was little more than a delay tactic on deficit-reduction, and its final report was ignored by just about everyone. The administration's strategy on deficit-reduction was to "gimmick it up," in the words of Larry Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council.

Members of Congress don't fare much better. Early in the book, Woodward describes the administration's effort to secure the support of Republican Congressman Joseph Cao for the stimulus. Cao was initially a "yea" vote with the expectation that his district would receive more than a billion in stimulus funding and that the president would either endorse him or not actively oppose him for re-election in his heavily Democratic district. When the final dollars were tallied, Cao wasn't going to get as much as he expected and ultimately opposed the bill.

Broken promises are not a new phenomenon for politicians, but coupled with a lack of results, it can become a major liability. It took less than two months for President Obama to break his pledge to reform the earmarking process, caving to pressure from Congressional Democrats on an appropriations bill. Shortly after winning in 2010 on a platform of fiscal responsibility, Congressional Republicans failed to deliver as trillion dollar deficits continued, and the debt skyrocketed to $16 trillion.

So what does this mean? Politicians are partisan, they break promises, and they often shrink from challenges. In that regard, the book tells us little we don't already know. Washington's response to the book will be more telling than what is actually in the book. Partisans are mining it for embarrassing details about opponents. "Insiders" will debate who was more in the loop on specific events and point out where Woodward got it wrong. The media will pick winners and losers, and everyone will claim they won. In other words, Washington will parse the details and miss the moral of the story just like it always does.

Woodward's book concludes with quotes from the administration and House Republicans on the debt ceiling debate. Speaker Boehner blames the president's team for not effectively serving their boss and cites a lack of management structure in the White House. The president says Boehner wasn't able to effectively marshal his troops to fulfill promises made. I suppose that one is a draw.

Woodward's last lines are: "These Washington leaders were risk averse. There was so much effort, much of it sincere, but so little result. Americans are now left with a struggling economy in the midst of a presidential election. It is a world of the status quo, only worse."

With a "win the day" strategy, the players might change, but the results are always the same.

Gretchen Hamel is executive director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans' financial well being.

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