The Obama administration has predicted a "reduction in readiness" for the military, and on the budget's nondefense side, it says "sequestration would undermine investments vital to economic growth, threaten the safety and security of the American people, and cause severe harm to programs that benefit the middle-class, seniors, and children."
Conservatives, for their part, have been sounding equally vivid alarms, focused squarely on the defense side of the budget.
"These cuts would leave the U.S. with its smallest Army since World War II, its smallest Navy since World War I, and its smallest Air Force ever – and this at a time when the world is not growing safer but more dangerous every day," policy analysts Emily Goff and Steven Bucci wrote this month in a Heritage Foundation report.
Yes, the threatened cuts are serious, but the reality may be more nuanced than the partisan sound bites suggest.
Before diving into details, it's important to keep some context in mind.
The potential spending cuts are important for two reasons. The first is simple pragmatism: Decision time is coming quickly, and this is an issue that could affect everything from stock market prices to whether government contractors eliminate thousands of jobs.
The second has to do with politics: The debate over the automatic cuts parallels the presidential election duel over fiscal visions between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Mr. Romney isn't stumping for the sequester, but his approach to federal spending has important parallels to it. Mr. Obama's approach does not.