Did President Obama cry wolf on the sequester?

March 6, 2013

In the days leading up to the March 1 sequester deadline, dire warnings about its impact were being issued daily from President Obama. Lines at airports would be interminable.  First responders would be compromised. Things would be, in a word, bad.


Did Obama cry wolf?

Then the sequester hit -- and (almost) no one noticed. (Sidebar: It's kind of like the "snow" storm currently "hitting" D.C.; lots of advance warning, very little immediate impact.) The sky is falling language seemed overblown, and the devastating consequences amounted to the suspension of public tours at the White House. Obama hasn't helped himself post-sequester -- landing in a bit of political hot water with a mistaken claim about what the sequester would do to janitors on Capitol Hill.

A number of Democratic strategists condemned the strategy behind the sequester gambit by the president -- albeit under the cloak of anonymity.  [Fix note: We initially quoted several of these strategists without their names attached. But, we've removed those quotes since. The goal of this blog is not to savage strategy without putting a name to it.]

Republicans, not surprisingly, lept at the chance to play some offense on an issue their party had seemingly determined would have to be endured as a necessary political loss. "They just jumped the sharquester,” John Hart, a spokesman for Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R), told the Washington Post Tuesday.

And, there is some -- emphasis on some -- polling data that suggests that the lack of truly bad things happening in the wake of the sequester deadline has shifted blame from squarely on congressional GOPers to more of a split verdict.

In a CBS poll released earlier this week, 38 percent of Americans said they blamed Congressional Republicans more for the sequester while 33 percent laid the blame more directly on the president. And, there was a much-noted dip in Obama's approval numbers in Gallup's daily tracking poll over the weekend -- although the numbers appear to have bounced back since then.

Even Obama seems to have changed his tune somewhat on the sequester -- beginning with a press conference he held last Friday.

"What’s important to understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away," Obama said. "The pain, though, will be real." Later he added: "The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy, a slow grind that will intensify with each passing day."

And, rhetorical change aside, President Obama seems far more committed to making a "big" deal this week than he was even seven days ago -- perhaps aware that the political ground beneath his feet is less solid than it was pre-sequester. He's having dinner with a handful of Republican Senators tonight then heading up to Capitol Hill to huddle with them next week. Heck, he even called Wisconsin Rep.Paul Ryan! Everything -- in terms of political body language -- screams that he is ready to make a deal.

Republicans now must decide if they want to take it. While they clearly feel as though they have political momentum behind them at the moment, the GOP would do well to remember that the high ground can shift rapidly. That's especially true when it comes to the sequester, which has been compared to a wave; it might start small but it can quickly grow into something that can swamp you. Remember that this is a $1.2 trillion spending cut spread out over a decade, meaning that the longer the sequester is allowed to stay in place the broader and more painful the cuts will become.

Obama's over-playing of his hand in the days leading up to the sequester have provided Republicans with an opportunity to get back on something-close-to-level ground when it comes to negotiating the shape of a bigger deal. But, they should never forget that overplaying one's hand is not something on which one party has cornered the market.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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