Carolyn Kaster/AP

Washington in 3 Words: Dumb, Arbitrary, and Inexcusable

U.S. leaders fail to lead on sequestration, but finger-pointing thrives.

Dumb. Arbitrary. Inexcusable. Those are words President Obama used Friday to describe the $1.2 trillion in federal cuts that Washington imposed on America.

What the president didn't do was accept any responsibility for the so-called sequestration that took effect Friday. Nor did House Speaker John Boehner, the leading Republican in Congress, as the nation's long-running and mind-numbing budget fight entered a new phase. What did the nation's leaders do? They blamed each other.

In a White House news conference, Obama effectively argued that he is politically impotent in the face of Republican obstinacy. "I am not a dictator," he said. "I am president."

He bristled when a reporter asked why he was so powerless. "Give me an example of what I'm supposed to do," Obama chuckled. Later, he dismissed a reporter who suggested that he lock GOP and Democratic leaders in a room until they fix the problem.

It's come to this: The president of the United States asking a reporter how to avoid a budget crisis -- and taking the reporter's silence, somehow, as confirmation that he is completely right and the GOP is totally wrong.

Sequestration is the result of a 2011 deal between Obama and the GOP to reduce federal borrowing. Their intent was to devise a package of cuts so onerous that the parties would be forced to find alternative means of reducing the federal deficit.

It didn't work. Obama pushed a plan to delay sequestration until January, replacing the cuts with a mix of $110 billion in new taxes and more narrowly tailored spending cuts. Republicans say they won’t raise taxes after more than $600 billion in hikes were approved in January.

Obama met Friday with GOP leaders for the first time in weeks, and only after the sequestration deadline had passed. Rather than seriously try to resolve the fifth fiscal crisis since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, Obama and Boehner quibbled over micro-issues such as who first proposed the sequester and who compromised the most in the past budget fights.

Sequestration "is a choice that Republicans in Congress have made'; they have allowed these cuts to happen because they refused to budge on closing a single loophole," Obama said, failing to point out that he made some choices, too, that fueled the bipartisan fiasco.

Obama is afraid of angering liberal allies. Boehner worries about his right flank. Both men are talking almost exclusively to their partisan backers, with Obama holding the better political hand because voters currently side with him and because he has offered more in the way of compromise than the GOP.

The sequestration cuts are likely to be part of discussions later this month over the budget resolution, which expires at the end of March. The debt ceiling expires in May, and there could be another fight over it. Barring an onset of leadership, the sequestration cuts will remain in effect throughout fiscal 2013.

For Republicans, the stakes are obvious and immediate: A Washington Post-Pew poll suggests that significantly more Americans are inclined to blame Republican leaders rather than Obama for consequences of the cuts. The GOP’s image is already mired at near-record lows.

The president’s incentives to bend are more subtle—but potentially just as significant. First, Obama and his Cabinet are portraying the consequences of sequestration in the grimmest terms. With most of the cuts scheduled to take effect gradually, Americans might conclude that the president exaggerated the impact. He could lose credibility and leverage.

Obama appears worried about that. He stressed Friday that Americans won't feel the effects right away. "The pain, though, will be real," he said.

Second, a drawn-out battle over sequestration could undermine the president’s bold agenda. Gun control, immigration reform, climate change, and other issues would get less attention and Obama’s political capital would be diverted.

Finally, Obama's approval rating on the economy is weak and slipping, polls show, and the public supports some type of spending cut to deal with the deficit, even if they don't agree with the GOP approach.

For his part, Boehner spoke briefly outside the White House to urge Congress and the president to pass a budget resolution.

On a day of spin and blame-shifting, the president did hit the mark once. "This is not a win for anybody," he said. "This is a loss for America."