As of now, there's widespread agreement in Washington that the sequester--the across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending--will happen on March 1st.
The only disagreement is over who will get the blame for letting the once unthinkable occur.
Republicans believe that President Obama will ultimately take the fall. The buck, they say, ultimately stops at the White House. "People will hold Obama accountable at some point," said one GOP strategist, "He is the president after all." The economy is the purview of the president, not Congress. Obama "owns the economy" said one Republican. If it flops, so does he.
Moreover, every Republican I spoke with was quick to remind me that the sequester was "Obama's idea." They point in particular to Bob Woodward's book, The Price of Politics, the highly detailed accounting of the debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011, in which then-White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew proposes the idea of the sequester to Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Of course, 174 House Republicans supported this idea when the Budget Control Act passed the House on August 1, 2011, as did 28 Republican senators who gave it their vote when it came before the Senate for final passage the following day.
Meanwhile, Democrats feel equally confident that Republicans are going to end up the biggest losers. Not only does Obama have the benefit of the bully pulpit, they say, but he's also markedly more popular than the Republicans.
"There's a reason that their numbers are in the tank'" said an Obama adviser. Republicans, said this adviser, are associated with extreme politics and obstructionism. And, at the end of the day, "people will blame the party that seems uncompromising."
So, who's right?
When it comes to image, President Obama is in much stronger shape than the GOP.
A January ABC/Washington Post poll showed President Obama with a 55 percent job approval rating, while approval of Republicans in Congress was a dismal 24 percent.
It's tough for Republicans to cast Obama as the bad guy from a 30-point popularity deficit. This is not like the pot calling the kettle black. It's more like the pot trying to pick a fight with the stove.
Plus, as we've seen Obama is quite good at using his bully pulpit to demagogue.
Republicans also argue that while the sequester is not ideal, it will ultimately usher in spending cuts which are popular. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) told Politico that the "budget cuts would be a 'home run' with the American people."
A Quinnipiac poll taken in early February found that voters trusted Republicans in Congress more than President Obama to cut federal spending by a nine-point margin (48% to 39%).
Yet, cutting spending isn't as big of a priority for voters as the economy overall. An ABC/Washington Post poll from January found that 68 percent of Americans thought the economy should get the highest priority from Congress and the President. Reducing spending came farther down the priority list at 49 percent.
Moreover, cutting spending is a much bigger priority for Republicans than it is for Democrats or Independents. Twice as many Republicans as Democrats gave reducing spending the highest priority (68% to 34%), while 48 percent of Independents felt the same.
Democrats also point to the election results as validation of Obama's economic leverage. Said one Democratic strategist, "we just had an election that was about economic philosophy. We won. They lost."
Perhaps this is so. But that doesn't mean that voters think the President is doing a great job on the economy. The most recent CBS poll found Obama's approval on handing the economy at just 45 percent.
Ultimately, there is still time left for Congress and the White House to salvage some sort of deal to avoid the sequester. As we know all too well by now, nothing in Washington gets done until the 59th minute of the 11th hour. Even so, simply avoiding a worst case scenario is not enough to help make things better.
At the end of the day, the party that makes American public feel like the winner is the one that will be able to claim "victory."
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Charlie Cook's Column
Uphill BattlesDecember 6, 2013
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