The Sequester

03.15.13

Why Canceled White House Tours Are Sinking Obama on the Sequester

It was a move that was supposed to bring the pain of billions in automatic budget cuts home to Americans. Instead, Republicans are hammering President Obama where he lives.

The sequester kicked in two weeks ago. By the time the automatic spending cuts are fully realized, it could cost the country more than 700,000 jobs, shave more than $200 billion off the GDP, and result in longer lines at the airport, fewer inspectors examining the safety of the food supply, fewer agents securing the border.

But for now, Washington is consumed with the Obama administration’s decision to cancel tours of the White House.

According to a study by the liberal website Think Progress, since March 6 the three cable-news networks have mentioned the canceled tours 33 times as often as they have sequestration’s effects on housing assistance, food stamps, and early childhood education. Right-wing talk shows and blogs have been in a frenzy, accusing the administration of backtracking on the reasons why the tours had to be canceled in the first place. After a group of sixth graders from St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, made a video of them pleading with the White House to permit their long-scheduled tour to go on, Donald Trump offered to fund the tours himself, and Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Eric Bolling pledged to pick up a week’s worth of the $74,000 cost themselves.

On Tuesday, press secretary Jay Carney fended off more than a half-dozen questions about the cancellations, and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in a rare sit-down interview with the president, brought it up as well. 

Republicans have been reacting to the canceled tours with barely disguised glee, sending around a fact sheet Wednesday afternoon detailing what they called the White House’s “ever-evolving story” about the tours’ cancellation, with Carney saying that the cancellations were the White House’s decision and Obama telling Stephanopoulos that it was the Secret Service’s idea in order to avoid furloughing any of their officers.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) sent a public letter to the president asking that he stop playing golf until the tours resume. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced an amendment that would cancel a contract giving Transportation Security Administration agents new uniforms in order to resume the tours.

Video screenshot

At CPAC, Rand Paul lambasted Obama, listing other programs that should be cut instead of White House tours.

“It totally undermines the harm that the sequester is actually doing to Americans. Now all we are talking about is the canceled tours and not about all the jobs lost.”

“It just isn’t right that the administration has decided to lock the American people out of the White House to deal with budget cuts when it is the American people who pay for the White House,” said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-MI) chair of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the tour program. “No democracy should ever shut out the people from the institution of government. I urge President Obama to stop trying to deflect blame, stop trying to justify the unjustifiable, and reopen the doors of the White House to the American people.”

There are few in Washington who believe that the administration’s hands are tied on the matter. On the face of it, the politics of canceling the tours seems pretty shrewd. The sequester is a slow-rolling cut, its pain real, but only apparent for most Americans over time. White House tours, meanwhile, are largely scheduled through the offices of individual congressmen, and it is the staffs of those members of Congress who have been forced to call constituents to tell them that their trip to the nation’s capital will be without a visit to its crown jewel.

But the move has backfired on the White House, much as the rest of their sequester messaging has, and Obama finds himself on the defensive right at the start of his second term. 

“It is a petulant, juvenile response,” said one Democratic official close to the administration. “It totally undermines the harm that the sequester is actually doing to Americans. Now all we are talking about is the canceled tours and not about all the jobs lost.”

This week, The Washington Post urged the White House to restart the tours immediately, calling the move a “kind of bureaucratic hostage-taking,” and the blowback “a proper come-uppance.” The thinking by many in Washington now is that the Obama administration is merely waiting for a moment when the world is otherwise consumed to announce that they are restarting the tours—say this Friday afternoon, or sometime over the weekend.

Democrats have been trying, without much success, to blame the cancellation on the Republicans’ unwillingness to deal on fiscal matters:

“I don’t think [Obama] believes that the money saved is going to make any difference at all as it relates to the deficit, but I think that everyone should know that there are people being hurt in a very direct way,” said New York Democrat Charlie Rangel. “And when people say, ‘Why didn’t you make a trip to the White House?’ it is because [Republicans]  wouldn’t allow our budget to be funded.

“A kid asks for a lollipop and you say no,” he added. “They ask why and you tell them the reason of course is that the Congress refuses to allow these things to happen.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, seem content to hit the White House over the issue for as long as possible. A number of GOPers spoken to by The Daily Beast said they are reminding those whom they call that the Capitol building remains open, and they are happy to facilitate tours of it for all of those locked out of the White House.