Defense Spending Cuts 2013: Should Obama Worry Sequester Effects Could Shape His Legacy?

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With a little more than a week to go before the across-the-board automatic spending cuts known as the sequester slashes billions from the military, the White House and Congress are still at an impasse, with fingers pointed at each other.

President Barack Obama's re-election had given him the upper hand over the Republicans, who are still in disfavor with much of the public. Repeating his tactics from the fiscal cliff drama at the end of last year, Obama has returned to the presidential bully pulpit to shape the debate surrounding sequestration.

In a speech on Tuesday, the president urged Congress to find a solution or at least pass an interim package that delays the cuts, which have already been postponed from the original Jan. 1 date.

Some $85 billion in cuts – shared evenly between the Pentagon and domestic programs – will begin March 1 if lawmakers find no alternative or refuse to pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms. Republicans are against another tax increase.

Much of the talk has now shifted from whether the spending cuts will happen -- which appears increasingly likely -- to whose plan actually represents the American people and who stands to get the blame when the sequester kicks in.

Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans believe congressional Republicans should be blamed if a deficit deal isn’t brokered in time, according to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. Only 31 percent would blame Obama.

The survey of 1,504 people nationwide between Feb. 13 and 18 also found that:

- 40 percent of Americans say it’s better to let the spending cuts happen;

- 49 percent say it’s better to delay sequestration;

- Both Republicans and independents are evenly divided over which approach is better;

- Almost a third of Democrats favor sequestration kicking in over any delays.

It appears Obama’s “balanced approach” of new tax revenues and spending cuts is also favored by an overwhelming majority of the public, as 76 percent of respondents said the two sides should combine the two to reduce the budget deficit.

Only 19 percent of the people favor the Republican approach that takes taxes off the table.

The idea of sequestration began with the Obama administration; the White House proposed it during the 2011 debt ceiling debate. Yet some 174 House Republicans joined 95 Democrats to pass the ensuing measure that introduced sequestration. 

“I don't think this was a deal the president wanted,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “This was a deal of last resort. [Obama is] popular. His ideas are popular.”

The Pew poll showed that Obama has a 51 percent job approval rating. Post-election it was 55 percent. Though that rating has dropped some it is still leagues above the GOP’s congressional leaders’ 25 percent approval.

But Zelizer said Obama does have something to lose if sequestration happens. And the loss has to do with his legacy rather than politics. If the spending cuts do occur, Obama may find that the consequences hurt his ambitious second-term agenda including tax reform, immigration, gun control and climate change.

“[If sequestration happens] and takes money out of the economy,” Zelizer said, Obama could spend “the next few years dealing with a recession" and may have less room for far-reaching policy initiatives.  

More than 700,000 job losses could result, according to some estimates, from the sequestration cuts.

But at the 2014 midterm elections, it is Republicans who stand to suffer more damage. 

“It’s an elaborate game of chicken,” said Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University. “Obama doesn’t have to go for re-election again. They do. The Republicans have to be pretty uneasy about that.”

“In retrospect, it was a brilliant move for President Obama to kick this can down the road to have the sequester after the election,” he said.

Some say the blame will go both ways but the Republicans will feel it more.

“The situation truly is so convoluted in terms of who wants what and who suggested what that there will be mutual finger pointing,” said Albert Cover, a political science professor at Stony Brook University. “It’s complicated how we got here, so I don’t think Obama would bear the brunt of the blame. If I was guessing I would say the Republicans would get most of the blame. They are not doing too well in terms of popularity.”

But beyond the politics, there's the real-world effect of the cuts. Stopping that pain may require sacrifice. “The jury is still out but the constant fighting has to stop,” Whalen said. “One side is going to have to fall on the sword. Call this the Gettysburg of the fiscal crisis.”

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