The Washington Post

The sequester is inevitable. So why is President Obama still talking about it?

For the second time in recent weeks, President Obama used the bully pulpit to make the case for dodging the rapidly-approaching package of automatic cuts known as the sequester.

President Obama urges Congress to avert the looming sequester. AP photo.

"It won’t help the economy. It won’t create jobs. It will visit hardship on a whole lot of people," Obama said in remarks earlier Tuesday, adding later: "The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another."

But, it would be a mistake to assume that Obama's emphasis on the need to avert the sequester means that he believes that a deal can be made to do that between now and March 1. He doesn't.

Remember that Obama has always had a pragmatic political streak -- his decision to reverse course in the 2008 presidential race and forego public financing being one obvious example -- and, since the collapse of the grand bargain talks in the summer of 2011, he has become a far more cynical (and politically successful) operator.

Seen through that lens -- and that's the lens you should see all of Obama's moves these days -- what the president is doing with his repeated public emphasis on the sequester is laying the groundwork to win the political argument over the cuts in a few weeks time.

Here's the reality of the sequester: No one outside of Washington knows a) what it is and b) what it will do.

But, that will change on March 1 when the $1.2 trillion in cuts -- granted, they will be spread out over the next decade but still -- hit.   While many of the cuts will be slow to take effect, there is expected to be a direct and quick impact on the federal workforce and the defense industry. The reverberations from those events -- and the resultant news coverage -- will almost certainly shine a light on just what the sequester is and what it will do if left in place for the next ten years.

When people start paying attention to the sequester, President Obama wants to make sure that he has the political high ground in the blame game. These two public statements over the past few weeks -- not to mention his State of the Union address -- allow him to tell people that he warned Congress of the dangers of allowing the sequester to happen and they chose to ignore him.  It's an "I told you so" moment.

All of this positioning is based on a belief that once the sequester happens and seemingly inevitable public outcry to it kicks in, there will be a call for some sort of deal to be reached to ensure that the full impact of the sequester is not felt. And, Obama wants to be the one with the upper hand in those negotiations with Congress -- a position that would allow him to push for the targeted tax increases he wants as well as the cuts he prefers.

Republicans, of course, are doing much of the same positioning by trying to lay the sequester at Obama's feet in hopes that when it hits the chief executive will get the blame and, therefore, be weakened when both sides (inevitably) come to the table in a few weeks time to strike a deal to avert the sequester.

Make no mistake: Neither President Obama nor Congressional Republicans believe a deal can or will be made prior to March 1 to stop the sequester. Everything that happens now then is rightly understood as a way to try to gain political leverage in advance of the post-March 1 talks to put together a new and improved package that gets rid of the nasty effects of the sequester.

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

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