WASHINGTON -- The fallout from federal spending cuts over the coming weeks might alter the nations political landscape for years to come.
Already, a decade of budget deficits run up in war and economic crisis has saddled the government with a $16 trillion debt, a bill that will force the country to come to grips with how much government it wants and how much it wants to pay for it at the very time the aging baby boomers put new strains on the budget through such vast programs as Medicare and Social Security.
Now the government is about to start cutting spending in some programs, offering a first look at how the American people will react.
If people feel the sting of the so-called sequestration with fewer teachers at their schools, more time in airport security lines and smaller checks for people without jobs, they might rise up and send a clear signal that the country really wants to keep all of the government it now gets and perhaps feed a demand that the government charge more in the form of higher taxes.
If, however, the majority of Americans dont feel any pain from the cuts, if they either dont see an impact or dont empathize with federal employees enduring unpaid furloughs, theyd likely invite more moves to cut spending. That would bolster the Republicans.
Either way, its a high-stakes gamble for the two major parties, with the winner likely to dominate the debate and perhaps elections for years.
So far, Americans arent paying much attention. Just one in four were following the news closely last week, according to the Pew Research Center.
That amplifies the urgency for the parties to try to define the budget cuts on their terms. It also explains why President Barack Obama spent the last two weeks pushing the idea that the reductions are cruel and thoughtless. He needs people aware and angry to bolster his argument for more taxes and fewer spending cuts.
The $44 billion thats being trimmed over the next seven months is a less than ideal test for either party.
Created by the Obama and Congress in 2011, sequestration was meant to be painful. They thought that the threat of automatic cuts would force them to find a better alternative. It didnt.
Democrats insist on adding tax increases and leaving more spending untouched. Republicans want the same amount of spending cut, but would prefer it in different places.
Led by Obama, Democrats are betting that the American people will hate the reductions and demand tax increases instead.
The danger is that they might have overplayed their hand. First, some of the most extensive and popular federal programs, such as Social Security, wont be trimmed. Second, the cuts will take effect slowly and might not be felt in time to affect the debate over extending government funding past March 27 or whether to raise the governments debt ceiling past May 19.
There might be an eventual payoff, though. As the sting of cutting spending intensifies, Democrats think, so will their electoral prospects.
This is going to be a slope, not a cliff, said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
Democrats also will point to the alternative spending cuts that the Republican-run House of Representatives passed twice last year. No Democrats voted for the plans, which would have made deep cuts in some of Obamas key initiatives, such as a fund to implement the 2010 health care law, as well as housing and food stamp programs.