If "Sequester" was a board game and not an existential crisis for the federal government, President Obama could claim credit for making a savvy move Tuesday.
But it’s not a game. And, once again, both Democrats and Republicans are playing chicken with the nation’s future rather than leading. Here’s your scoring update.
Obama urged Congress on Tuesday to quickly pass a new package of limited spending cuts and tax increases to avert across-the-board reductions to military and domestic spending set to begin on March 1.
The package of automatic cuts, called a “sequester,” is the result of a 2011 compromise between the White House and the GOP to avoid a debt crisis. Congress designed the reductions to be draconian enough to spur passage of a more thoughtful deficit reduction package.
But no deal has been reached. The haphazard and the economy-slowing cuts look increasingly likely to take effect.
Don’t worry, though – both sides have their butts covered.
For Obama, his move Tuesday puts Republicans in the position of choosing between capitulation and sequestration. Politically speaking, it is a smart way for the president to pin the cuts on the GOP, whose public image is in the toilet.
Obama’s advisers believe they have driven a wedge into the House GOP caucus, with hawkish Republicans moving toward the president’s position. If the cuts take place, the White House will blame Republicans and point to their refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy, as Obama wants.
House Republican leaders say their hawks are standing firm despite looming cuts to the Pentagon's budget. The GOP Caucus is resigned to letting the sequester take effect unless Obama approves spending cuts equal to any tax loopholes closed on the wealthy.
Republicans can point to the fact that Obama missed the deadline for submitting his budget, an act of irresponsibility. They also have smartly maneuvered to force Senate Democrats to submit a budget (or lose their pay), which puts Obama’s party on the defensive.
The GOP is spinning the sequester as Obama's idea, a notion that, while technically accurate, glosses over the fact that the White House proposed the trigger mechanism in concert with stubborn Republicans.
Chances are, Obama is in the best position, politically and tactically, given the GOP’s image problem and the president’s inherent advantages via the bully pulpit. He gets to lecture Congress in his State of the Union address next week.
But to what end? Americans are still waiting for their leaders to lead – to put their careers a bit at risk and find room to compromise on a budget deal that secures the nation’s fiscal health.
White House advisers will tell you that the president is fighting hard politically because it's the only way to force bull-headed Republicans to the negotiating table. Obama deserves credit for pursuing both tax hikes and cuts in entitlements beloved by his liberal base. His gamesmanship might prevail.
But to most Americans, the sequestration fight is simply and sadly an extension of what the president on Tuesday aptly called Washington's “political dysfunction."