Crying Wolf Over the Sequester

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As the automatic spending cuts take effect and many of the parade of horribles the White House warned about fail to materialize, Democratic officials are beginning to worry that President Obama has cried wolf over the effects of the sequester, Politico reports.

Democrats are probably right to worry, given that Team Obama has clearly overreached in its warnings about the sequestration’s cuts. Perhaps an even greater cause for concern is the appearance that the administration is trying to mislead the press and intentionally making the impact of the cuts more dramatic in order to gain a messaging advantage over Republicans.

This is risky ground for Obama for two reasons. The first is that he may not be well positioned to control the narrative of the automatic budget cuts. A new ABC poll indicates strong public support for the idea automatic spending cuts – even if not for the existing sequestration process in all its detail – except for the cuts to military spending. In other words, whatever the history and particulars of the sequester, the public is right now more receptive to the GOP’s position than to the White House’s.

The second possible pitfall for Obama is that the administration’s handling of the rollout of the sequester threatens to overshadow the sequester itself. The jockeying over the fiscal cliff and the sequester has always been an insular topic. Even as Washington freaked out about the across-the-board cuts, consumer sentiment about the economy surged. It’s possible that the public will tune in to the spectacle of the White House battling with the press in a way it never did for the administration’s earlier dire warnings about the sequester.

This possibility isn’t lost on members of Team Obama. Politico cites one “Obama insider” saying that the White House has “pulled back from a kick-off strategy that portrayed the $84 billion in automatic cuts this year as a parade of instant horrors — hellish waits at airports, a quick cascade of private job losses resulting from voided federal contracts, teachers immediately sacked.” Politico’s source calls this pivot a “'recalibration'…intended to take the focus off the veracity of the administration’s claims.”

The worry about sequestration was never that the sky would fall, although you wouldn’t have known it from the listening to the White House. The fear was that, as the Bipartisan Policy Center phrased it, the “Sequestration’s effect will be akin to that of a slow motion train wreck…. [W]hile there won’t be a sudden “cliff” that occurs on March 1, the ramifications will steadily worsen as time passes.”  

If the BPC’s analysis is correct, in a few months Obama won’t have the economic progress he was hoping for, but he also won’t have the ability to explain why, having already cried wolf about the sequester.

 

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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