Basking in the campaign-like trappings of Obama's White House press conference, reporter Jackie Calmes repeated in Wednesday's New York Times, the president's horror stories on the purportedly deep impact of mandatory budget cuts, known as the "sequester," that are scheduled to hit March 1: "Obama Tries to Turn Up Pressure on Republicans as Cutbacks Near." The cuts amount to an estimated $85 billion this year out of a $3,600 billion dollar budget, but Calmes pushed Obama's pain angle.
Days away from another fiscal crisis and with Congress on vacation, President Obama began marshaling the powers of the presidency on Tuesday to try to shame Republicans into a compromise that could avoid further self-inflicted job losses and damage to the fragile recovery. But so far, Republicans were declining to engage.
To turn up the pressure on the absent lawmakers, Mr. Obama warned in calamitous terms of the costs to military readiness, domestic investments and vital services if a “meat-cleaver” approach of indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts takes effect on March 1. Surrounding him in a White House auditorium were solemn, uniformed emergency responders, invited to illustrate the sort of critical services at risk.
The president plans to keep up the pressure through next week for an alternative deficit-reduction deal that includes both spending cuts and new revenues through closing tax loopholes. He will have daily events underscoring the potential ramifications of the automatic cuts, aides said, and next week will travel outside Washington to take his case to the public, as he did late last year in another fiscal fight on which he prevailed.
Calmes left out the fact that the sequester idea actually originated at the White House, according to Washington Post veteran Bob Woodward's book The Price of Politics. Obama signed on to the sequester himself when he signed the Budget Control Act of 2011. As the Washington Post wrote in August 2011: "The debt-limit agreement directs the new committee to identify at least $1.2 trillion in additional savings over the next decade. If the panel does not produce a plan by the end of November -- or if Congress does not adopt it by the end of the year -- more than $100 billion a year would be cut automatically from the budget, starting in January 2013."
Calmes didn't even consider, as the Washington Post did, that if the cuts happen and America didn't much notice, it would support the GOP argument against big government. Even more deferential to the president than she usually is, Calmes assumed Obama the Good has only the national interest (not his own political success) at heart.
Still, the president’s leverage might in fact be limited, since by all appearances he seems to want a deal far more than Republicans do. As the leader of the nation, Mr. Obama is eager to see an end to the repeated evidence of Washington dysfunction, or what he referred to again on Tuesday as the cycle of “manufactured crisis.” And with his legacy ultimately at stake, he needs to lift the fiscal uncertainty that since 2011 has held down economic growth.
The potential impact is potentially hazardous nonetheless, both economically and politically. As Mr. Obama noted, the prospect of the sequester has already affected military deployments and hiring by military contractors, and threatens layoffs of teachers, air traffic controllers and researchers, among others.
Hours after the president’s remarks, economic forecasters at Macroeconomic Advisers, based in St. Louis, projected that sequestration would reduce the firm’s forecast of growth this year by nearly a quarter, 0.6 percent, and cost roughly 700,000 civilian and military jobs through 2014, with heightened unemployment lingering for several years.
“By far the preferable policy,” the analysis said, “is a credible long-term plan to shrink the deficit more slowly through some combination of revenue increases within broad tax reform” as well as “more carefully considered cuts” in spending programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. That prescription for both long-term spending reductions and revenue increases, as an alternative to immediate deep spending cuts that inhibit job growth, generally tracks Mr. Obama’s approach.
He has proposed $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years and revenue increases that would build on the roughly $2.5 trillion over the decade that he and Congress have agreed to in the past two years.
But the liberal-leaning FactCheck.org pointed out: "The president claimed that “both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion.” But that’s only an estimate of deficit reduction through fiscal year 2022, and it would be lower if the White House used a different starting point."
Calmes again and again portrayed the battle from Obama's point of view, without a single Republican argument until the very last paragraph, in which House Speaker John Boehner was quoted as saying the "The revenue debate is now closed."