Across-the-board automatic federal spending cuts, known as a sequester, threaten to take effect Friday. President Barack Obama, who has learned a lesson about one-on-one negotiation with congressional Republicans, has taken to campaign mode, likely in the hope of scoring a victory in the court of public opinion.
Obama appeared on television last week to warn Congress about the impact of sequestration, which may result in more than 700,000 job losses and would affect everything from public safety to food inspection. To put a human face to the crisis, a number of first responders were in the background as the president spoke of the $85 billion budget cuts – split evenly between military and domestic programs.
Then on Monday, Obama called on governors to remind their congressional representatives “in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake and exactly who is at risk.”
This campaign-style tactic is not sitting well with Republicans. The party leadership on Capitol Hill has said Obama isn’t serious about replacing the sequester with a negotiated solution, because he is engaging in politics instead of encouraging action from the Democratic-controlled Senate. Some GOP senators have also said the president is exaggerating the impact of sequestration.
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“The president proposed the sequester, yet he’s far more interested in holding campaign rallies than he is in urging his Senate Democrats to actually pass a plan,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a press conference on Monday. “Listen, we know there are smarter ways to cut spending and to continue to grow our economy."
He added, “The president says we have to have another tax increase in order to avoid the sequester. Well, Mr. President, you got your tax increase. It’s time to cut spending here in Washington.”
Boehner was referring to the higher rates on the top brackets enacted in the New Year's fiscal cliff deal.
By the White House’s analysis, some 10,000 public school teachers are at risk of becoming unemployed as an effect of the sequester; there could be 2,100 fewer food inspectors; more than 1,000 agents will be cut from the FBI and other federal law enforcements agencies; and there could be decreased funding for states and local grants that could affect emergency responders.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the president is “absolutely” exaggerating the impact of the cuts.
“We see all these claims about what a tragedy it’s going to be,” he continued. “The great example is, is if the secretary of transportation can assure us all the planes are going to be safe, then the Department of Homeland Security can assure us that we can get through the airports on time. They have plenty of flexibility in terms of discretion on how they spend money. There are easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel. What you hear is an outrage because nobody wants to cut spending – and it will be somewhat painful, but, not cutting spending is going to be disastrous for our country.”
Obama has urged Congress to pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reform to head off the spending cuts. That would give lawmakers more time to work on a budget and on a more thought-out deficit reduction plan.
“I think he is trying to use the magnitude of the cuts to force the GOP into action on closing tax loopholes,” said Mattea Kramer, research director at National Priorities Project in Massachusetts. “I think it’s possible that a budget agreement could retroactively cancel sequestration and offset it partially by closing loopholes.”
With the two parties at polar opposites on the matter, it is up to the president to urge action on the issue.
One way to get things done is to raise fear and the other is to pressure Congress, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. The best bet, he said, is for Obama to exert pressure on senators, particularly the moderates in each party.
“The aim is to use the power of the presidency to build public pressure,” Zelizer said. “The cuts will have an effect on government services. … Many governors have to deal with it.”
And with sequester three days away, some say the game now is about who will blink first.
“They are eyeball to eyeball here,” said Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University. “I think Obama has the advantage on this. He can certainly suggest [the governors] can play ball here because less money will impact the whole financial status of their states. They’ve done the number crunching and it really alarms them.
“He’s using classic divide and conquer tactics, which I think will be effective in the longer term,” Whalen added. “[Obama] can wait it out. He doesn’t have to go for re-election.”
A third of the senators will be up for re-election in next year’s midterms. Twenty-one of the 35 seats up in 2014 are held by Democrats and many of the states casting ballots for the Senate are right-leaning.
But Republicans aren’t doing too well in the eyes of the general public as the sequester nears.
According to a survey conducted last week by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post, 60 percent of Americans believe the automatic spending cuts would greatly affect the U.S. economy.
That poll showed that more people will be blaming congressional Republicans (45 percent) for the sequester instead of the president (32 percent). Only 13 percent would put equal blame on the two.
“[The sequester] goes to the heart of national security,” Whalen said.
He added that with the spending cuts forcing staff reductions in security at airports, it could be easier to smuggle harmful materials like a bomb on airplanes.
“This doesn’t go over well with the public,” Whalen said, calling the sequester “a brainless exercise.”
National Priorities Project’s Kramer believes governors will be siding with Obama on this fight because the cuts are so indiscriminate.
“We won’t feel the effects on Friday but we will start to notice changes within weeks if the cuts aren’t stopped,” she said. “Workers furloughed, other workers laid off, contracts unrenewed – a general blow to the economy that will have ripple effects.
“This is deeply irresponsible budgeting,” she added. “Even if deficit reduction is your top priority – and there’s disagreement about whether it’s an urgent matter or not – making cuts in this indiscriminate manner is deeply unwise. It’s like trying to lose weight by cutting off your arm; better to come up with a strategy for slimming belly fat.”