The White House spin machine is going full blast this week in anticipation of the sequester. This, my friends is political theater at its finest. You have a president who is using his bully pulpit to essentially argue to the nation that Congress should do everything in its power to avoid the spending cuts that were his idea in the first place.
The problem all started during the 2011 debt limit negotiations. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had worked hard for weeks to come up with a “grand bargain” that would have reduced the deficit by reducing spending, reforming entitlements and adding revenues. But the deal fell apart at the last minute when Obama caved to the left-wing elements of his party and demanded an additional $400 million in tax hikes.
A last minute solution was then cobbled together in which the Obama administration prioritized self-preservation over good policy. The sequester idea arose because President Obama hates raising the debt limit. For a spend-happy liberal it’s a public relations nightmare that draws press and public attention to the fact that his party refuses to address the deficit. In any other year this is a problem Obama could live with, but in an election year it posed an enormous threat.
To avoid the spectacle (or more aptly, debacle) of another debt limit hike in the weeks prior to the election, the administration devised a sequester. Under the plan, a Deficit Supercommittee would be formed to create a package of cuts that would receive an up or down vote, but if the committee failed a sequester—which included cuts that neither party was supposed to like—would automatically go into effect. In other words, the deficit would be cut regardless and most importantly, the president avoided another debt limit hike.
Fast forward to today and Obama seems to have forgotten all of this backstory and is instead trying to spin his way out of the problem.
“It won’t help the economy. It won’t create jobs. It will visit hardship on a whole lot of people,” the president said in remarks. Instead, the sequester cuts will “add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls.”
On these points Republicans largely agree with him. Indeed, House Speaker John Boehner spent the first line of a recent op-ed essentially mirroring Obama’s worries. “A week from now, a dramatic new federal policy is set to go into effect that threatens U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more,” Boehner wrote.
And yet for all the agreement on the problem, only one party is serious about a solution. House Republicans have put forth several proposals that would replace the meat-ax approach taken by the sequester and replace it with targeted, smart cuts and reforms to federal programs. For their part Democrats have apparently given up trying to find a solution to a problem of their own creation and instead are focusing the entirety of their energies to making sure they don’t get blamed for the fallout. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes:
“Remember that Obama has always had a pragmatic political streak – his decision to reverse course in the 2008 presidential race and forego public financing being one obvious example – and, since the collapse of the grand bargain talks in the summer of 2011, he has become a far more cynical (and politically successful) operator.
Seen through that lens — and that’s the lens you should see all of Obama’s moves these days — what the president is doing with his repeated public emphasis on the sequester is laying the groundwork to win the political argument over the cuts in a few weeks time.
When people start paying attention to the sequester, President Obama wants to make sure that he has the political high ground in the blame game. These two public statements over the past few weeks — not to mention his State of the Union address — allow him to tell people that he warned Congress of the dangers of allowing the sequester to happen and they chose to ignore him. It’s an “I told you so” moment.”
Republicans, for better or worse, have not yet reached such levels of cynicism. Led by Speaker Boehner they are still trying desperately to find a solution to spare the potential economic harm and job losses threatened by Obama’s plan.
“Both parties today have a responsibility to find a bipartisan solution to the sequester,” Boehner writes. “What Congress should do is replace it with other spending cuts that put American on the path to a balanced budget in 10 years, without threatening national security.”
Until President Obama and Senate Democrats do that they have no room to be pointing fingers.