With the sequester fast approaching, President Obama has stuck stubbornly to a strategy that has paid off for him in the last two rounds of the battle over the budget: Paint the GOP as a near-fanatical obstacle to common-sense compromises, and then watch public opinion push Republicans into a corner. The plan worked when it came to extending the debt ceiling and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and the White House is ostensibly confident that the GOP will buckle when it comes to the sequester, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts that will begin hitting the Pentagon and discretionary programs on March 1. And even if the GOP doesn't cave, the administration thinks Republicans would get the blame for any damage to the economy should the sequester hit.
Obama doubled down on that strategy this week in an interview with Al Sharpton, in which he claimed Republicans had few policy goals but to protect the rich. "Their basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations," Obama said. "That's the thing that binds their party together at this point." And his blunt talk appears to be working: A full 75 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, agree with Obama's proposal that deficit reduction should comprise a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. Republican lawmakers have demanded that the sequester be replaced solely with spending cuts. As a result, half of the electorate say they will blame Republicans for the sequester, while less than a third would hold Obama responsible.
However, some analysts are warning that Obama may have taken his GOP-bashing too far. According to Carrie Budoff Brown and Jake Sherman at Politico:
He's navigating a thin line. Obama is convinced he's got the upper hand on Republicans. Yet he can go only so long before he risks being perceived as a main actor in Washington's dysfunction, threatening a core element of his political brand — and the fragile economic recovery he's struggled to maintain. [Politico]
Naturally, conservatives tend to agree. Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal says that Obama's "government by freakout" strategy is wearing voters thin, and that he "is overplaying his hand." David Brooks at The New York Times says that Obama is ducking hard problems and that his shtick is getting old:
Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn't address the problem (let's raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the only serious and substantive person in town. [The New York Times]
Of course, in the eyes of Obama supporters, Republicans deserve all the criticism that they get. As Greg Sargent at The Washington Post writes:
What more, if anything, could Obama actually do to win cooperation from today's Republican Party on averting the sequester, short of giving in to the GOP demand that we replace it only with spending cuts? Republicans say no compromise to avert the sequester is acceptable. That's not an exaggeration: It's the party's explicit, publicly stated position. What more specifically could Obama do to change this? [The Washington Post]
Still, Obama's strategy has its obvious risks, the main one being that the sequester may well actually go into effect, shortening work hours and lowering paychecks for as many as 800,000 civilian employees at the Defense Department — and that's just one example of the myriad ways in which the sequester will affect the economy. At this point, Republicans in Congress have no incentive to step back from the ledge other than trying to avert a public fallout, which they may view to be less politically damaging than raising taxes. The Obama administration has given a lot of stick, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the White House offer a carrot or two in the coming days — if only to make it look like they tried.