Republicans are launching an aggressive effort to blame President Obama for deep cuts due to hit the Pentagon next year, spotlighting a potentially dangerous issue for the president a day ahead of a two-day campaign swing through military-rich Virginia.
Orchestrated by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, top Virginia Republicans issued a series of statements Thursday accusing Obama of presiding over “radical” cuts that would harm the state’s economy as well as national security. The effort highlighted not only how competitive Virginia is expected to be in this year’s presidential race, but also the new hurdles that loom for Obama in a state he won in 2008 with a six-point margin.
“Virginia is the home of America’s military,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said in a statement distributed by the Romney campaign. “We are home to the Pentagon, to Quantico, to Norfolk, to Langley Air Force Base, and so many other critical components of our nation’s armed forces. The President has put our defense budget on course for radical cuts that even his own secretary of defense says will be ‘devastating’ to U.S. national security.”
The $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon and non-defense programs were adopted last summer as part of an effort to rein in the national debt. But the plan was to force House Republicans and Obama back to the table for a longer-term solution, not for reductions to actually take effect.
Advisers at the White House and the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago made that point Thursday in an effort to dismiss the Romney attacks and insist that the responsibility to avoid the cuts is shared.
“What bipartisan majorities passed last year was a legislative commitment by Congress to take action,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in his daily briefing Thursday. “The secretary of defense and others have made clear they do not support the cuts in defense spending that would be called for. The across-the-board cuts were objectionable and onerous for a reason. That’s why Congress has to act.”
Republicans are trying to shift that argument to place the burden squarely on Obama. Their statements Thursday described “Obama’s defense cuts,” and several of them, including McDonnell and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), were expected to make an appearance Friday morning in Williamsburg, where the National Governors Association is convening for the weekend, to continue the barrage.
Furthermore, federal contractors, many of them based in Virginia, have begun an aggressive effort to lobby lawmakers to avoid the cuts. One such contractor is EADS North America in Herndon — just down the road from Centreville High School, where Obama is scheduled to speak Saturday afternoon. In a letter to congressional leaders, EADS Chairman Sean O’Keefe called the threatened military cuts a “blunt instrument of budgetary discipline” and urged lawmakers to find an alternative.
Virginia is one of three states (the others are California and Texas) expected to be hit hardest by the cuts, according to a growing body of research. But it is the only crucial battleground, which explains why Republicans are seizing on Obama’s two days of events there to highlight the reductions. Obama will speak in Virginia Beach, Hampton and Roanoke on Friday and in the Richmond area and Fairfax County on Saturday — all locations rich in military installations or defense contractors.
According to state officials, Virginia could lose more than 122,000 of its 900,000 defense-related jobs as a result of “sequestration,” Congress’s word for the budget cuts. The defense cuts alone could result in the loss of $10.5 billion from the state’s economy. And Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, where Obama will land for his second appearance Friday, could lose nearly 1,100 active-duty, civilian, National Guard and reservist positions.
In addition, Virginia ranks first in the nation in spending on federal contracting. In Northern Virginia, about 93,000 jobs and $8 billion in economic activity could be lost over 10 years.
Obama’s campaign was already aware of the significance of Virginia’s military population, touting to service members, veterans and their families a variety of policies, such as increased funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and better services for returning troops.
The Obama campaign reiterated that message Thursday in response to the Republican attacks, accusing Romney of supporting a congressional budget proposal that calls for deep cuts in discretionary spending.
There is an irony to Republicans’ trying to portray Obama as unfriendly to the federal workforce — an accusation that typically flies in the other direction. One Virginia Democrat, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, rejected the idea that Obama is vulnerable on the charge.
“I don’t think it’s a liability for him,” Connolly said. “That’s why you’re seeing the full-court press on their side. It’s a liability for them. They don’t want to be reminded of who gave us a sequester.”
Connolly also reiterated a point circulating widely on Capitol Hill this week — that all talk of trying to avoid the sequester before the election is just that: talk. There is little chance such talks will occur until after November; what’s happening now, Connolly said, is little more than posturing meant to gain advantage both in the election and in the run-up to the start of those negotiations.
“Everybody has some leverage going into this lame-duck Armageddon, and everyone has some vulnerabilities,” he said. “And that’s what this is. This is an exercise in raw, cynical politics.”
Roz Helderman contributed to this report.