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Whose Sequester Is It Anyway?

Feb 19, 2013
Originally published on February 19, 2013 6:02 pm

By now, it's widely accepted that indiscriminate spending cuts in defense and domestic programs due to start March 1 are likely to occur owing to the failure of President Obama and the Republican-led House to reach an agreement to avoid the budgetary cleaver.

So now, the contest boils down to each side scampering for the higher ground of moral indignation.

For weeks, the president has alleged that the ideological extremism of congressional Republicans is to blame for the impasse. A fresh example of that came Tuesday at a White House photo op at which the president, with men and women in uniform as his backdrop, warned that such first responders would be affected if the cuts — $1.2 trillion over 10 years — were allowed to happen:

"So now Republicans in Congress face a simple choice: Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and health care and national security and all the jobs that depend on them? Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations? That's the choice."

Meanwhile, Republicans have tried steadily to pin the looming spending cuts on the White House.There was this example Tuesday in House Speaker John Boehner's response to Obama's photo op:

"Washington Democrats' newfound concern about the president's sequester is appreciated, but words alone won't avert it. Replacing the president's sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years. To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?"

If the sequester does happen, it's a given that the public will look for someone to blame while waiting in longer security lines at the airport. So whom are voters likely to punish?

It is true that sequestration was the Obama administration's idea. White House officials proposed it as part of the agreement that resolved the 2011 debt ceiling fight. It was meant to act as a spur to make a bipartisan supercommittee reach an agreement on a package of spending cuts and tax increases that would reduce the national debt over time.

For fiscal policymakers, it was the equivalent of the Cold War's mutually assured destruction, or MAD, concept. The specter of fearsome damage to both sides kept the U.S. and the Soviet Union from launching nuclear war on each other. Likewise, the terrible prospect of the sequester was supposed to make wiser heads prevail. Of course, that presumed there were enough wiser heads for that strategy to work

Though Obama proposed the idea, it's unlike Obamacare — which received no GOP House votes. Indeed, 174 House Republicans, a majority of the majority, joined 95 Democrats to pass the plan in that body. So Republicans arguably own the sequester as much as Obama, if not more so, since Obama never wanted to link spending cuts to the debt ceiling.

But all of that is the kind of Washington process story that most voters most likely won't care about.

So, again, who is likeliest to get the blame if the sequester actually happens?

It's not clear.

Back in 2011 when fiscal policy disagreement between the White House and congressional Republicans threatened a partial federal government shutdown, the public appeared truly split, according to polling over which party would be at fault.

That was a far different situation than the mid-1990s, when the public blamed congressional Republicans more than then-President Bill Clinton for the government shutdowns of that era.

Obama would appear to have some advantages over congressional Republicans, however.

Unlike those in Congress, he's not running for re-election. Arguably, he can be relatively more fearless and take more risks when it comes to the public reaction than Republicans can.

Of course, congressional Democrats, especially in the Senate where the Democrats' majority is narrow and thus vulnerable, do face re-election. So for them, the longer this can stay a sequester fight largely between the president and Republicans, the better.

As the president showed again Tuesday, he also has the power of the bully pulpit. Because of the power of the presidency, he tends to draw more attention in Washington or when he takes his message on the road than Boehner and other congressional Republicans.

Also, for his entire presidency, Republicans have tried to define Obama as an evangelist for government (and its spending) and define themselves as against spending. So if the spending ax falls on March 1, many voters may find it easier to blame Republicans than Obama since the resulting spending reductions — especially in areas like education, research and infrastructure — will be more in line with GOP priorities than Obama's.

Of course, Republicans have argued that Obama is willing to accept those cuts because he also gets reduced defense spending. But Obama's constant warning against automatic cuts done with an ax and not a scalpel, as well as past Republican efforts to paint him as a big-spending liberal, could help inoculate him against such accusations.

While it's hard to say for sure which side the majority of Americans will ultimately come down on (many are clueless about the sequester, a recent poll found) many voters are likely to agree with Erskine Bowles about the unwise nature of the cuts, regardless of who gets the blame.

Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who, along with former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, headed a famous commission whose 2010 deficit proposal went nowhere, was back in Washington Tuesday for the release of another proposal likely to meet a similar fate.

Speaking of the potential spending cuts from the sequester, Bowles said:

"They are dumb and they are stupid, stupid, stupid. They are inane. There's no business in the country that makes cuts across the board. You go in there and you try to cut those things that have the least adverse effect on productivity.

"Second, they're cutting those areas where we actually need to invest: education, infrastructure, research.

"And third, they don't make any cuts in those things that are growing faster than the economy. And that's stupid, stupid, stupid."

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