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February 27, 2013

The Three Huge Ifs in Obama Sequester Strategy

Posted in: Barack Obama

As far as I can tell this is the entirety of the President Obama’s strategy when it comes to the sequester. The administration seems to be banking on the fact that once the sequester starts it will do real destruction to the economy. This destruction will get the public up in arms. That in turn will make the Republicans fold.

This strategy though is predicated on three very big ifs.

The first is that the pain of sequester will quickly cause a backlash. The problem here is that while immediate austerity will hurt the economy, many of the impacts of the sequester will take weeks and even months to be felt. For example, the administration is highlighting possible teacher layoffs but the impact won’t be felt until the next school year.

Even if there is a backlash, for the strategy to work it also needs voters to overwhelmingly blame the sequester on Republicans. Currently the public would blame the GOP slightly more than Obama, but that may not continue. Part of the problem with the sequester is that austerity during a weak economy is bad and the other part is that undirected across the board cuts are idiotic. Republicans are already talking about giving agencies greater flexibility over the design of the cuts. If the GOP spins this as “Obama is purposely making the sequester worse to play politics” they could easily muddle the waters on blame.

The final huge if is that Obama could create a deal that is more popular and politically viable than the sequester. Given the number of failed grand bargain attempts, that seems unlikely. The Democrats plan to temporarily delay the sequester would probably poll well but Obama’s plan to fully replace it probably would not. The American people are not going to like the idea of a middle class tax increases and Social Security benefit cuts being used to give money to a bloated Pentagon.

The sequester was intended to fall in a middle ground where all sides would hate it making it unthinkable, but having it be the default this dynamic has actually had the opposite effect. While it is bad, any viable alternative will be worse for a least a large part of Congress. Republicans are not going to want to risk a primary by breaking their anti-tax pledge to fund increased government spending. Progressives are not going to want to cut entitlements to give more money to the military. It is almost impossible to imagine how a broad enough coalition could be formed around any one alternative to get it through both chambers of Congress. The sequester is likely to be the least bad option for some group with effective veto power.

The administration does at least seem to have a sequester strategy and an end game, but how they get there is based on a lot of wishful thinking.

Image by epiclectic under Creative Commons license


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