To understand why the White House is aggressively contesting Bob Woodward’s account of who’s responsible for the sequester, you only have to take a look at how high the political stakes are for President Obama. Instead of tactically conceding on a short-term fix that would provide for smarter spending cuts -- as the Republicans did during the fiscal-cliff fight, when the White House held more leverage -- Obama has chosen to pick a fight over the fairness of deep spending cuts, at the expense of more significant items on his plate.
Now the White House’s entire agenda, from guns to immigration, is in jeopardy, and the president’s approval is taking a hit, with much more on the line in the coming month.
The headlines from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released Wednesday, seemed like good news for the president, but there are plenty of warning signs embedded within the survey. President’s Obama’s job-approval rating dropped 3 points overall since last December, to 50 percent, and his economic job approval is a mediocre 44 percent, down 5 points in the past two months. Despite the GOP’s deep unpopularity, Democrats hold only a statistically insignificant 2-point edge, 32 percent to 30 percent, over which party was best able to handle the economy. Republicans hold a 16-point edge on which party is best-equipped to control spending, even higher than their pre-2010 midterm standing.
Most notably, on the sequester, the White House held only a narrow advantage when respondents were presented the arguments for and against it. A bare 50 percent majority agreed with the president’s argument that the cuts “are too severe,” while 46 percent argued it is “time for dramatic measures.” Asked what Congress should do, 53 percent supported either keeping the cuts or implementing more significant spending cuts, with 37 percent backing a plan with fewer cuts. It’s hardly the sign of a presidential mandate on the subject, and a reminder that there is widespread concern over spending and the federal debt.
The White House’s strategy to exaggerate the immediate impact of the cuts has backfired, at least to some degree. The Washington Post reported that Education Secretary Arne Duncan falsely claimed that public school teachers were already receiving pink slips. The Pew Research Center this week found that only 30 percent of voters thought the spending cuts would have an impact on their personal finances – much lower than the 43 percent who believed the fiscal cliff posed a danger on that front.
And even if you concede that the president holds the upper hand in the coming month as the cuts are implemented (a point that seems awfully tenuous), it’s worth remembering the cost he’s paying for putting all his focus on the sequester. As I pointed out in last week’s column, there’s a reason why presidents from both parties have angered their bases by promoting legislation to the middle – be it Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, George W. Bush’s education package or George H.W. Bush’s tax hike.
Obama has a lot more to gain politically on immigration and gun control -- winning long-term issues for Democrats -- and there’s plenty of evidence that congressional Democrats and Republicans are (gasp!) working together to forge bipartisan agreement. On gun control, liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and conservative Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are negotiating a possible deal that would expand background checks for gun sales, with signs that some of the Senate Republican Caucus would be on board. On immigration, Republican leaders are all but begging for a deal so they can improve their outreach with Hispanics well before the 2016 presidential election. Passing bipartisan immigration reform and some gun-control measures would provide Obama with a long-term legacy and provide Democrats with twin political victories of their own heading into the midterms.
But these issues also hang at the mercy of congressional Republicans, who don’t have much goodwill with this White House. Poisoning the well on a sequester fight focuses on the short game instead of the long. Picking fights with Bob Woodward underscores how much this White House has gambled on the issue, and how much it has to lose. Already, Democrats are concerned there’s no backup plan on gun control if the Schumer-Coburn negotiations break down. Reaching a deal on immigration, meanwhile, relies on winning over some skeptical House Republicans, whom the president has been relentlessly bashing in this sequester fight.
What’s ironic is that the much-maligned Congress is actually pretty close on crafting bipartisan legislation on long-intractable subjects of gun control and immigration. But it’s the White House, with the political attention span of a cable news cycle, that is risking losing it all for betting Obama will come out ahead in this messy fiscal fight.