President Obama
President Obama (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Unless Congress and President Obama act before March 1, the country will endure a wholly gratuitous national nightmare. That’s when budget cuts known as “sequestration” begin to phase in, demanding untargeted, across-the-board reductions in nearly every category of federal spending. The cuts will hurt every American, not just those who might lose federal services, because they will sap economic growth, erode military effectiveness and bolster the impression that the United States can’t govern itself sensibly. That, the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates, will result in the loss of over a million jobs in the year after its implementation (h/t Matthew Yglesias). So, why isn’t President Obama doing more about it?

Chuck Todd put that question to outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Obama, Todd said, has been holding events on immigration reform and gun control, neither of which must be dealt with over the next few weeks. What about the sequestration insanity scheduled for less than a month from now?

“The president of the United States has indicated the concern about the sequester,” Panetta said. “And he has proposed a solution to this.”

“Indicated”? Did Panetta mean to damn the president with weak praise? That’s one of the wobbliest words he could have used to describe Obama’s expressions of concern. It often describes the act of communicating through implications, rhetorical feints or mild verbalizations, not strong declarations. It’s the word journalists use to characterize that very Washington practice of hinting at a public stand.

The president has not been silent on the matter. When prompted in a pre-Super Bowl interview CBS aired on Sunday, Obama said that “Washington cannot continually operate under the cloud of crisis,” and he warned that a drastic, pre-sequestration reduction in defense spending has already hurt economic growth. Beyond that he, well, indicated that he wants to see some specific money-raising tax reforms in any bargain to cancel the sequestration cuts.

Which is to say, as Panetta did on Sunday, that “the ball is in Congress’s court.” How discouraging.

Yes, Congress should be working on this. And, yes, if the sequester kicks in, the House GOP would rightly bear more of the blame than Obama for refusing to consider raising more revenue to offset the cuts. But that doesn’t mean he gets a pass to focus on other topics. The president’s activity — or lack thereof — is a variable that always affects the policy equation.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has repeatedly thrown responsibility for following through on big policy to lawmakers — on health care, climate change, even the fiscal cliff. At this point, he’s clearly also weary of negotiating with Republicans under the duress of national catastrophe, and he’d rather get on with the rest of his agenda. But this is the most pressing issue facing the country right now; the nation needs someone to step out front, strongly. It’s hard to imagine what Americans elected Obama to do if not that.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.