Did Obama go too far in warnings of sequestration?


McClatchy Newspapers

For weeks, President Barack Obama has warned Americans about the dire consequences of allowing the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration to go into effect .

The nation would be more likely to sustain a terrorist attack. Criminals would be set free. Schoolteachers would be laid off by the thousands.

“If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness; it will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research,” Obama said last week from the White House, flanked by uniformed firefighters.

But his warnings didn’t spur Congress to act. And the White House had to defend itself against questions about whether it inflated the claims of danger.

Facing a barrage of questions Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was “very confident” about the accuracy of its warnings. He blamed reporters for saying that repercussions would be immediate and claimed Republicans had switched their political strategy to downplay the effects of the cuts. “I can tell you that the impacts . . . are real,” he said.

Carney cited a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that indicates the reductions would cause growth in the gross domestic product to dip 0.5 percent and 750,000 jobs to be lost.

“If this happens, you should go out to Ohio and ask the families that are affected if they think it’s real,” he said. “Ask the family whose child will not have a slot in Head Start whether they think it’s real. Ask the civilian Defense Department employee, who’s already gotten a notification that he or she will be furloughed, whether that has a real impact.”

But Carney couldn’t explain why Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this week that Kanawha County, W.Va., had already issued pink slips in anticipation of the cuts when the layoffs had nothing to do with reductions.

The effects of many cuts won’t be felt for months, maybe even until next year, as local and state agencies figure out how to make do with less. While the federal government might not have much flexibility in how it dispenses the cuts, local agencies may be able to shift money around to try to accommodate them.

“On Monday we’ll be able to police the streets,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who visited the White House this week. “There will be a fire engine that responds and an ambulance. Our teachers will be in front of the classroom. If there’s snow we’ll be able to plow. It’s something that takes awhile to implement,” he said.

“There’s a lot of posturing: ‘I’m going to lay off my employees today unless you do something. We’re going to close the hospitals down. We’re going to take all the prisoners from jail and put them on the streets.’ Spare me. I live in that world. I mean, c’mon, let’s get serious here,” he said.

Obama himself appeared to hedge his warnings this week.

“I should point out, and I’m sure you’ve heard from a number of experts and economists that this is not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward,” he told the Business Roundtable on Wednesday night. “It’s conceivable that in the first week, the first two weeks, the first three weeks, the first month . . . a lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester.”

Carney said the White House wasn’t toning down its warnings because of concern that it had overstated the impact.

“It’s our responsibility to be upfront about the fact that you cannot responsibly cut $85 billion out of the budget in seven months without having dramatic effects on the defense industry and civilian workers, on our national security readiness, on teachers, on kids in Head Start,” he said.

The reductions probably will start going into effect Friday after Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill failed to reach a deal to halt them.

Republicans want to keep the same level of cuts but allow the government to choose where to trim. Democrats want to pass a package of smaller spending reductions and additional tax revenue. Democrats rejected the offer of flexibility, saying it wouldn’t help.

“The administration has clearly been beating the drum that it is going to be a budgetary Armageddon across the land, but given flexibility it may have far less impacts,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget-watchdog group.

The first round of reductions – postponed from January – is estimated to be $85 billion. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that agencies will reduce spending this year by about $44 billion, with the remaining cuts coming in future years.

Obama had a trio of Cabinet secretaries – transportation, homeland security and education – speak to reporters about the cuts. Some appeared on Sunday talk shows, calling the reductions painful and harsh, disruptive and destructive. In some cases, agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration would have to pare spending to 2008 levels.

“Like the little boy who cried wolf, the White House has decided that if there isn’t a crisis, you can create one and take advantage of it,” wrote Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “That sums up President Obama’s approach to the looming sequestration.”

Several female Democrats in the House of Representatives said the cuts would cause harm, citing programs for women and children as one top example.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the reductions would “cause unemployment, instability and uncertainty in our economy.”

A Washington Post-Pew poll released this week shows that 48 percent of people said they weren’t following the issue too closely or at all closely.

Republicans suggest that Obama was never really pushing Congress to act, but rather trying to blame Republicans ahead of the midterm 2014 elections.

Organizing for Action, an outside political group staffed by former Obama aides, is using the spending cuts to raise money. House Democrats already have started a series of paid phone calls in 23 districts held by Republicans.

Michael Dimock, of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said Republicans were more likely to take the blame for slowing the economy because of the cuts. “If both sides lose, the Republicans are primed to lose more,” he said.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com, lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01, @lesleyclark

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