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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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On Message: What Obama's Saying (And What He's Not) About Sequester

Feb 27, 2013
Originally published on March 13, 2013 2:34 pm

If you're confused about who owns the sequester, what it means and what it will do, you have lots of company.

In Washington, the key players can't even agree on what's at stake, much less find a way to stop the automatic government spending cuts set to begin Friday.

In an effort to interpret some of the political messaging, today we're taking a closer look at the words being used by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

First, President Obama:

"Are Republicans in Congress really willing to let these cuts fall on our kids' schools and mental health care just to protect tax loopholes for corporate jet owners? Are they really willing to slash military health care and the border patrol just because they refuse to eliminate tax breaks for big oil companies? Are they seriously prepared to inflict more pain on the middle class because they refuse to ask anything more of those at the very top?" — Feb. 23

The Message

The White House and Democrats in Congress come back to this theme again and again. In short, they say, Republicans favor the rich over the middle class. It worked for the president in his campaign against Mitt Romney, in part because so many Americans identify themselves as middle class. According to a Gallup/USA Today poll from late last year, a full 55 percent of Americans consider themselves part of the middle class, while just 2 percent say they are upper class or wealthy. It turns out, raising taxes on someone else to save you from pain is a pretty effective message.

If you unpack the president's statement, he's saying that the sequester is going to lead to all kinds of painful cuts to schools, mental health care, the border patrol and beyond. But if Republicans would just agree to close some corporate loopholes and tax breaks for fat cats, there could be a deal that involves a mix of smarter spending cuts and and more revenue, and these cuts could be avoided, the president is saying.

What He's Not Saying

It's not that simple. First, most of the awful no-good effects of the sequester won't happen immediately. The White House has been portraying this as another cliff, when in reality it is more of a slope.

Second, while the president emphasizes closing tax loopholes, they aren't the whole answer. Far from it. Over a decade, the sequester would cut discretionary government spending by $1.2 trillion. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, eliminating the tax breaks for corporate jet owners, the big oil companies and hedge fund managers would generate about $59 billion over a decade. Put another way, that would raise enough money to replace about 6 months of the decade-long sequester.

Republicans do oppose using tax increases to reduce the deficit or offset the sequester. That includes eliminating loopholes — many of which exclusively benefit the wealthy. (If tax breaks are eliminated, they want that money to go to lowering marginal tax rates, which would most benefit those with the most income.) That's what makes this message from the president such a powerful weapon in the partisan battle over spending and taxes. But what Democrats and the president fail to mention is that there are also many Democrats quietly working to keep these tax breaks in place because they benefit their constituents.

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