February 19, 2013

A few moments ago, President Obama renewed his call for a temporary solution to averting the sequester — one that contains a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, rather than just the spending cuts Republicans want. Obama pointedly noted that the GOP position was akin to Democrats demanding that we avert the sequester only through tax hikes.

This is a difficult political position for Republicans to sustain, for the reasons Greg pointed out this morning. But judging by the immediate Twitter response to Obama’s remarks, House Republicans are convinced they can blame the sequester on Obama, or at least, certain they can avoid political blowback for any economic slowdown that comes as a result of implementing large, across-the-board spending cuts. Their reasoning is straightforward: The public is results-oriented and unconcerned about the particulars of congressional procedure. Americans neither know nor care about how created the sequester, they are just looking for Washington to get something done. And since, for most Americans, the president is representative of Washington, any gridlock will harm Obama far more than it does Congress, and Republicans in particular.

In one sense Republicans are close to the mark as far as the political dynamics of this are concerned. Yes, Obama can use the “bully pulpit” to castigate Republicans and highlight the consequences of letting the sequester go through. As The Hill points out, the White House has already warned “that the cuts will reduce loan guarantees to small businesses, end Head Start funding for 70,000 children and leave 373,000 seriously mentally ill people without treatment.”

But as we saw with the fight over the fiscal cliff in 2011, those warnings mean little to a public that just wants action from Washington. Remember, the outcome of that fight wasn’t just lower approval for Congress and congressional Republicans, but a lower rating for Obama as well. That fall saw Obama’s popularity reach its nadir, and he has the debt ceiling crisis to thank for it. Even if he wins the sequester stand-off, odds are good the public will blame him for any economic harm that comes as a result.

With that said, there’s a chance history won’t repeat itself. 2011 was a perfect storm of factors, from the GOP’s huge midterm victory in 2010 to an economy that was just beginning to move into recovery. Now, Obama has the advantage of a reelection victory, a high approval rating, a united Democratic caucus, and public support for his position of “balanced” deficit reduction to avoid the sequester. As with the fiscal cliff, he might be able to pressure Republicans into a deal and avoid political damage.

Indeed, if Republicans miss anything about the political dynamics of the sequester, is that the public’s blame is indiscriminate. Yes, by allowing the sequester to go through, they’ll damage the president’s standing. But Obama isn’t running for reelection in 2016, and there’s only so much the GOP can gain from harming his approval rating. By contrast, midterm elections are fast approaching, and this is a strategy guaranteed to stoke public discontent with incumbents. And as we saw in last year’s Senate elections, Democrats are skilled at directing that anger towards Republicans.

If the GOP is interested in expanding its House majority, and taking back the Senate, it might want to think twice about manufacturing another stand-off with the president. It’ll satisfy the Republican base, at the cost of alienating everyone else.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at *The American Prospect*, where he writes a *blog.*