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."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.