But the arcane and complex subject matter is only merely confusing. What makes the book depressing is the inability of leaders in Washington, starting with President Barack Obama but also including top Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress, to look beyond their own political fortunes and forge an agreement when the nation's fortunes were so clearly at risk.
Woodward lays the blame, ultimately, at Obama's feet. But it's obvious from Woodward's reporting that the Obama White House wanted to reach a "grand bargain" to reduce the deficit and achieve some long-term reforms on spending and entitlements. That cuts against the Republican argument that Obama has not tried to fix these problems.
The more pertinent debate is whether Obama led on the issue. And Woodward's book makes a compelling case that Obama did not do as much as he should have. But he also faults House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who tried in June and July 2011 to reach a deal with the president.
"When you examine the record in depth, you cannot help but conclude that neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled it particularly well," Woodward writes. "Despite their evolving personal relationship, neither was able to transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas. Rather than fixing the problem, they postponed it."
The book has essentially three sections: the first 100 pages or so is a set up for the second and third portions, and lays down the predicate that Obama's White House did not do the necessary work to build relationships with Republicans or the business community early on in his presidency.The most specific significant critique that Woodward levels is aimed largely at the president, and gives him substantial blame for talks with Boehner falling apart.
"Most extraordinary was the repeated use of the telephone for critical exchanges. Especially baffling was President Obama's decision to make his critical request for $400 billion more in revenue in a spur-of-the-moment phone call," Woodward writes. "The result was a monumental communications lapse between the president and the speaker at a critical juncture."