President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner won’t admit it publicly, but the dysfunctional duo has bungled their handling of the $85 billion worth of across-the-board spending reductions slated to begin on Friday.
It’s not just that the cuts are occurring, even though the plan was to use the severity of these reductions—especially on defense—to force through a compromise managing the budget deficit. Instead, it’s that as Obama and GOP lawmakers keep sounding the alarm, the American people keep pushing the snooze button. In politics, failure to engage the public is the essence of failure itself.
Only about a quarter of the country has heard “a lot” about the looming sequestration cuts, according to a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. More claimed to know “nothing at all.” The web site Buzzfeed published a story Monday showing that readers are ignoring this latest crisis, using its own traffic as proof.
“How is anyone supposed to make an assessment about the practical impact that it will have in their lives?” asked Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, the national organization for health care consumers. “I’m not sure it’s reached a level of understanding that results in consternation. I think people hear there’s a big controversy in Washington, but I don’t think they understand what it’s about.”
This budget crisis de jour—the latest in a long chain—should shock no one. It was the result of a bipartisan committee of lawmakers being unable to agree to more than $1.2 trillion in deficit savings way back in November, 2011. These automatic reductions that are split evenly between the Defense Department and domestic programs have been on the public radar for more almost 15 months.
No doubt part of the problem is use of the technocratic term “sequester,” a mouthful that most people associate with the isolated tedium of jury duty. Also, no one warns of an oncoming recession. But the other thing is that despite the efforts to humanize the affects, the cuts remain abstractions. The appearance of first-responders behind Obama as he speaks or the White House-issued figures about the impact on each state have yet to connect emotionally with the public.
“It points to something I think people in Washington are very often oblivious to,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor. “And that is, on a day to day basis, most Americans are not affected by what the federal government does. Unless you are a federal employee, or a recipient of Medicare or Social Security or Veterans benefits, all of which are untouched by the sequester, your life is not going to be greatly troubled.”
Somehow, political leaders have been able to bore voters with a controversy that touches on three of the issues that they profess to care about the most: growing the economy, job creation, and reducing government debt. Both Obama and Boehner gave reasons on Monday to continue yawning.
Each called on other side to hammer out a compromise with bland political talking points that have been used and abused for the past two years. They usually depend on vague adjectives to describe complex policies—“balanced” (Obama’s favorite), “responsible” (Boehner’s standard), and “smart” (a term used by both to describe why their positions are superior).
All told, it’s a simple, long-standing dispute over whether taxes should be used for reducing future budget deficits. Obama seeks to raise them again, after securing a rate hike earlier this year in the fiscal cliff deal that should put another $600 billion into the government’s coffers over the next decade. Republicans oppose any more revenues, saying that any fix should come solely from domestic spending reductions and entitlement reform.
Their unsurprising message is that it’s time for the other side to stop caring about politics and get serious about policy.
“This town has to get past its obsession with focusing on the next election instead of the next generation,” Obama told the state governors meeting at the White House in televised remarks. “At some point, we’ve got to do some governing.”
Boehner and the House Republican leadership blasted the president for his plan to speak about the sequester at a shipyard in Newport News, Va. on Tuesday.
“You know, the president proposed this sequester, yet he’s far more interested in holding campaign rallies than in urging his Senate—the Democrats—to actually pass a plan,” Boehner said.