Overblown?

02.26.13

Obama: Fear the Sequester Cuts!

As President Obama warns of the pain from deep budget cuts set to kick in on Friday, Republicans are accusing him of crying wolf. Howard Kurtz on who's winning the message war.

President Obama, taking his campaign against automatic spending cuts on the road, had a ready answer on Tuesday for Republicans who want to put the meat cleaver in his hands:

Not happening.

Appearing before hardhat-wearing shipyard workers in Newport News, Va., the president tried to step up pressure on the GOP to avoid the so-called sequester that hits Friday. Following the all-politics-is-local rule, Obama pointed out that 90,000 Virginia defense workers will face furloughs if the cuts are allowed to stand.

In a new twist, the president reacted to an emerging Republican plan to give the administration more flexibility in carrying out the $85 billion in cutbacks slated for his year. That, of course, would shift political responsibility to the White House. And Obama wasn’t buying, saying the time frame was too short to give him anything other than unpalatable choices. 

“There’s no smart way to do that,” he said. “Do I close funds for disabled kids or poor kids? Do I close funding for this Navy shipyard or another one?” Repeating one of his favorite themes, he said: “We can’t just cut our way to prosperity.”

The Newport News stop is the latest move in an orchestrated rollout on the issue that is being carried out with all the precision of a presidential campaign. And some Republicans are accusing the White House of exaggerating the sequester’s impact for partisan reasons.

Video screenshot

Sequester 101: Your idiot's guide to the nation's latest fiscal emergency.

Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour told me that Obama is “crying wolf.”

“Does the administration have a reason to make sure a lot of bad things happen?” Barbour asks. “We’re down to the last few days, and the president gets off the golf course and says the world’s about to come to an end.”

Chris Van Hollen, a top House Democrat, dismisses such criticism. “There’s no doubt you’ll see a huge amount of disruption,” he tells me. “The timing of that is less clear.”

The Maryland congressman points to a Congressional Budget Office study that says the cutbacks will cost the country 750,000 jobs this year. “This isn’t administration propaganda,” Van Hollen says. “This is the nonpartisan, independent CBO speaking.”

Deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest also denies any hype: “The facts are the facts. There are consequences to indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts…I’m not sure anybody has the evidence to indicate this is not going to happen.”

No one is minimizing the impact of $85 billion in domestic and defense cutbacks this year, once deemed so draconian that both sides assumed Congress would stop them from taking effect. But how that pain would be distributed, and how quickly it would be felt, is part of the blame game playing out in Washington. It’s all about the finger-pointing right now, since there are no negotiations about avoiding the budget-slashing that will begin at week’s end.

The administration brought out the big howitzer:
there could be security lines at the airports that last 90 minutes or more.

The rhetoric intensified on Monday, with House Speaker John Boehner charging the president with “using our military men and women as campaign props.” 

The White House brought Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the briefing room on Monday to respond to such criticism. “I’m not here to scare people,” she said. “I’m here to inform, and also to let people begin to plan -- because they’re going to see these impacts in their daily lives.”

Let’s take a minute to look at how the administration unfurled its message. The Pentagon launched the first guided missile last week: Nearly 800,000 civilian workers would be furloughed one day a week.

That was an attention-grabber.

The president himself dropped the next bomb at a White House appearance, surrounded by first responders: Criminals would go free, FBI agents would be furloughed, cops and teachers laid off, kids shut out of child care.

That didn’t move the needle. So the administration brought out the big howitzer.

There could be security lines at the airports that last 90 minutes or more.
Flights would be delayed as air traffic controllers are furloughed and fewer planes are allowed to fly. Overnight shifts would be canceled at 70 smaller airports.

America will be inconvenienced! What did we do to deserve this??

It was icing on the cake for the Obama team that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—a Republican—was tapped to deliver the news.

Video screenshot

Caption: Sequester 101: What you need to know about the nation's latest fiscal emergency.

But with a 9 percent overall reduction in domestic programs, does the department really have no choice but to allow greater takeoff and security delays? Barbour says the FAA spends $500 million on consulting fees alone.
“We're going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do,” LaHood told CNN’s State of the Union. “But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic controllers…This is not stuff that we just decided to make up.”

On Sunday, the White House held a conference call with reporters and rolled out a list of state-by-state budget cuts. Up to 2,300 kids could lose child care in New York, 90,000 defense workers in Virginia would face temporary layoffs, and so on. This approach is, of course, tailor-made for local news outlets.

The question is whether this amounts to the old Washington Monument strategy of threatening to close a popular tourist attraction, rather than back-office operations, as a way of fending off budget cuts.

Some Democratic allies worry that the administration is overplaying its hand by warning of dire consequences that will not materialize right away, which could undercut its argument. Unlike previous showdowns over the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff, the government’s machinery won’t grind to a halt on March 1 until the furloughs, benefit cuts and canceled contracts work their way through the system.

Both sides agree that the meat-axe approach makes no sense, but as has been the case for two years, they're unable to break the budget impasse that separates them. So they are reduced to impugning each other’s motives.

“They’re trying to make Republicans the political losers,” Barbour says. “Secondly, they want more tax increases.” Obama won a $600 billion, 10-year tax hike on the wealthy last month.

Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, accuses the administration of “PR stunts.”

“Instead of gimmicks intended to prove what we already know—that the sequester is a stupid way to cut spending—the Democrats could and should be looking at ways to cut waste, end duplicative programs and implement efficiencies,” Spicer tells me.

But Earnest says the cutbacks will be “painful” precisely because they were designed as “bad policy” that both sides would strive to avoid. He accuses the GOP of “protecting tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires” at the expense of those who would be hurt by the sequester. The battle is about far more than that, however, such as burgeoning spending on entitlement programs.

Boehner and other Republicans argue that the House has twice passed legislation to replace the sequester with a different set of cutbacks, while the Democratic-controlled Senate has failed to produce a budget. That is true, but the GOP budget was a partisan document that was never going to win much Democratic support.

With his near-daily appearances on television, the president has a bigger megaphone to make his case. And a USA Today poll shows 49 percent blaming the GOP for the stalemate, while 31 percent blame Obama. Republican lawmakers are divided over the issue, with some wanting to swallow the sequester cuts as the deepest reductions in government they are likely to get, while others—particularly those concerned about gutting defense—want to avoid the automatic cuts.

Obama again pushed for compromise at a White House gathering of the nation’s governors on Monday, saying “we’ve got to do some governing” rather than “careening from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.”

The president won’t get a chance to resolve the crisis until the real negotiations begin, perhaps in March—unless the administration’s dire warnings turn out to be overblown.