Analysis: Obama's Political Gamble on Sequestration

Charles Dharapak/AP

President Obama stood in front of a giant five-blade propeller at a Newport News, Va., shipbuilding plant on Tuesday, warning the public about the dire “meat-cleaver approach” that automatic budget cuts will have on the economy. It was the third time this month the president took his case on sequestration to the public.

But even as Obama proclaims dire consequences from the cuts, he is already hedging his bets.

“The impact of this policy won’t be felt overnight, but it will be real,” the president said.

This was a key concession. With further skirmishes over the debt ceiling and government funding not far off, the White House finds itself in choppy political waters for the first time since Obama won reelection. Its best-case political course hinges on the economy screeching to a halt, assumes that Republicans will again cave on revenues, and relies on the public being on his side. It’s a political gamble that could go bust.

The stakes for Obama could not be higher. At risk are high-priority items such as immigration reform and gun control, which are languishing as the sequester hogs the limelight. It’s not only the president’s agenda that could be at risk--the full-time attention to the fiscal fight is sucking valuable attention on more-pressing progressive priorities.

“There's real risk in saying that the sky is falling … especially if you consider that sequestration is structured to come in slowly,” said William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton who is now with the Brookings Institution. “If after three weeks people look around and the sky is where it traditionally has been. ... he has to be careful he doesn't get too far out on that limb.”

There are signs, though, that the administration has gone in that direction. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said pink slips have been issued to teachers because of sequestration, which The Washington Post showed to be false. Arguing his case that the cuts would damage national security, Obama suggested recently that criminals would be let go, which PolitiFact rated as mostly false.

One way to explain why the White House is taking its case to the public is Obama's comfortable reelection victory in November. The White House wielded leverage over House Republicans as the Bush tax cuts were expiring, and the president repeatedly made the case that the public was on his side on taxes. His argument eventually prevailed, and the Bush tax cuts were made permanent on people who earned $400,000 and under. But now Republicans are in no mood to put more revenues on the table.

“The problem is this: There is essentially zero-percent chance that the Republicans will agree to any further revenue increases outside a grand bargain,” Galston said. “It's not going to happen. They deeply resent the way Obama forced them to swallow tax increases. Obama may have believed once he got them to give a little, they would give more.”

And while it’s nearly certain the GOP won’t offer further revenues, it’s far from clear that the public sides with the president over the cuts. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that a majority of Americans support cuts to the budget. More than half--53 percent--want Congress to leave the current cuts in place or cut even more. When asked to choose either the president’s argument that the cuts are too severe or whether it’s time for more dramatic reductions, Americans were nearly split, with 50 percent siding with Obama’s argument and 46 percent with the GOP's. As my colleague Josh Kraushaar pointed out, the poll contained other warning signs: The president’s job approval is down 3 points in the last two months, and while the GOP is unpopular Democrats have only a 2-point edge, 32 percent to 30 percent, on the question of who can best handle the economy.

“I don't know that an additional $85 billion in cuts—I don't know how draconian that will be," said a senior Democratic strategist and former Hill leadership aide. “During the campaign, it was all about taxes, and I think they feel emboldened that it helps them."

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