Why Obama is on top in 'sequester' battle, but could lose long-term (+video)
President Obama is working hard to clarify how sequester spending cuts will hit Americans. But many don't understand what's happening and ultimately will look to Obama for solutions.
Even Republicans concede that, for now, the presidentâ€™s bully pulpit strategy on the â€śsequesterâ€ť is working. He has been doing local media interviews, leaning on the governors, and holding campaign-style events around the country â€“ including Tuesdayâ€™s visit to Newport News, Va. â€“ to highlight cuts in defense spending. And his team is flooding the zone with data aimed at sowing concern about how the cuts would affect real people. On Sunday night, the White House released numbers on the sequesterâ€™s impact, state-by-state.
But the public isnâ€™t paying much attention. Despite intensive media coverage, only 27 percent of Americans say they have heard a lot about the sequester, according to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. In addition, not surprisingly, most Americans donâ€™t understand the sequester. When asked what it is, only 36 percent of Americans selected the right answer, a recent poll by The Hill newspaper found.
So in fact, Mr. Obama bears some risk â€“ especially as time goes on.
â€śI think he wins short term, but danger mounts over time,â€ť says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. â€śThereâ€™s only one president, and he will be the focus of peopleâ€™s attention if a satisfactory resolution is not eventually reached.â€ť
Obama could in fact â€świnâ€ť the sequester battle for a couple of months, since the cuts will start to bite slowly. Very little will happen at the end of the week, when the deadline is reached. By March 27, when the next â€śfiscal cliffâ€ť deadline is reached â€“ the end of federal budget spending authority and the possibility of a government shutdown â€“ a sense of crisis could begin to build. And only then will the public look to Obama, as president, to solve the problem.
But doesnâ€™t Obama risk looking as if heâ€™s crying wolf? The White House is making dire predictions about cuts that take effect Friday, yet not much cutting will be in evidence.
â€śThe president can easily argue that while nothing dramatic happened today, it will come in a matter of weeks, and you will see it and feel it,â€ť says Mr. Jillson. â€śHe can say bad things will happen because the Republicans are failing to meet him halfway.â€ť
Another risk factor for Obama is the economy. For now, the recovery remains sluggish, unemployment is holding steady just below 8 percent, but the nation is not in recession (though preliminary numbers show the economy shrank slightly in the last quarter of 2012). One of Obamaâ€™s biggest policy weaknesses is his handling of the deficit. And according to the Pew poll, 70 percent of Americans think it is â€śessentialâ€ť for him and Congress to pass major deficit-reduction legislation this year.
â€śShould the economy not improve, and the deficit numbers grow, it could be a problem for the president in the long term,â€ť says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute.
But for now, Ms. Bowman says, Obama is beating the Republicans in the communications game.
â€śHeâ€™s out there with very specific answers,â€ť she says. â€śItâ€™s the only argument out there right now, it seems to me.â€ť
Congressional Republicans were on recess all last week, but return Monday night, and will have a chance to play catchup with their message.