Nobody knows whether anything will be done to avert the scheduled $85-billion-over-7-months federal government spending cuts (“the sequester”) that are supposed to kick in tomorrow. So the Washington conversation has turned to this:
“You’ll regret this.”
Those are the words that the director of Obama’s National Economic Council emailed to legendary journalist Bob Woodward last Friday. Was it a threat?
Here is the tick-tock:
Earlier that day, Woodward published an opinion article in the Washington Post arguing that President Obama misled the public by saying the sequester idea (the now-looming across-the-board spending cuts of more than one trillion dollars over 10 years, split between domestic and defence spending) was an idea hatched by House Republicans. Instead, Woodward said, it came from the White House.
Moreover, Woodward wrote that in the original deal to create the sequester – which was supposed to be a way to push both sides to come to agreement about how to achieve $1.2 trillion in spending cuts to reduce the deficit, in exchange for Republicans agreeing to increase the debt ceiling (remember the not-so-super Super Committee?) – there were to be no tax increases.
Woodward accused Obama of now “moving the goalposts” by calling for tax increases or “closing tax loopholes” as part of an agreement to avert the scheduled sequester cuts:
In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.
So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.
(Later came a TV appearance in which Woodward accused Obama of “madness” for deciding not to deploy a Navy ship to the Persian Gulf because of the cuts.)
Woodward then went on television to complain about the email. Woodward told CNN about the email, adding that “It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters” that they’ll regret what they write
In the email, which has since been published in full by Politico, Sperling apologizes to Woodward for having raised his voice in a conversation about his article. He goes on to say:
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start.
Was it a threat? In the context of apologetic tone of the email, it’s hard to construe the words as a threat to Woodward – more like a warning that Sperling believes Woodward will regret portraying the issue incorrectly as a journalist.
At a press briefing today, White House spokesman Jay Carney, was asked about the language used by Sperling, and he replied:
“Don’t you think it would be a responsible thing to ask that question in the context of the full email since we know what the full email said, where Gene Sperling, in keeping with a demeanor I have been familiar with for more than 20 years, was incredibly respectful, referred to Mr. Woodward as his friend, and apologized for raising his voice? I think you cannot read those emails and come away with the impression that Gene was threatening anybody, as I think others have observed.”