Why 40 percent of Americans aren't afraid of the sequester

Are they ready to take their fiscal medicine — or just not paying attention?

How bad could $1.2 trillion in spending cuts be, really?
(Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On March 1, America is scheduled to stroll off what remains of the fiscal cliff: $85 billion in spending cuts this year, split about evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary funding, plus about $1.1 trillion more in the next 10 years. The two people with the most power to avoid the cuts, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), both argued this week that the looming budget sequestration is terrible policy, guaranteeing ill-conceived slicing to the military and (according to Obama) all manner of civilian first responders. But it's increasingly unlikely that Congress and the White House will come up with a last-minute deal to replace or at least postpone the cuts — and the public is fairly evenly split over whether that's worth getting upset about.

According to a new Pew poll, 76 percent of Americans want a deficit-reduction deal that includes some mix of spending cuts and tax increases — Obama's position. But if Democrats and Republicans can't agree to a deficit plan, 40 percent say we ought to just let the sequester kick in (49 percent say we should put off the cuts until a deal is reached). The damn-the-torpedoes faction includes about a third of Democrats polled and roughly 45 percent of Republicans and independents. What's going on here?

1. People aren't really paying attention

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"While Washington is in a tizzy about the sequester, the vast majority of Americans haven't paid much attention," says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. Only 27 percent of Pew respondents say they have heard "a lot" about the sequester, while a sizable majority has heard "a little" (43 percent) or "nothing at all" (29 percent). That's good news for the GOP, because more Americans say they're inclined to blame House Republicans (49 percent) over Obama (31 percent) if there's no deal. Of course, "just because Americans aren't paying much attention to the sequester doesn't mean they won't once it goes into effect. If the cuts have the massive impact that they are purported to and Americans balk at that, there will be plenty of blame."

2. Americans are ready to take some fiscal medicine

Strikingly, the more Republicans and independents said they knew about the sequester, the more willing they were to let it kick in — 54 percent of GOP respondents and half of independents. That fits with a growing argument in the conservative media and among House Republicans that the sequester isn't really that bad, and that cutting federal spending is more important than protecting military spending — and definitely preferable to new tax revenue, Obama's precondition for a deal. "The ham-fisted sequester cuts would not be the optimal way to trim spending, but it's the best available plan — the only plan, really," says David Harsanyi at Human Events. Republicans should simply say "Thank you, Mr. President," and let the "sequestration plans to proceed unhindered."

3. Few people think the cuts will affect them

For all the doomsday talk, the American Republic won't end on March 1 if the sequester isn't replaced or postponed, say Reuters' Richard Cowan and David Lawder. "While some furlough notices will be issued to government workers, there will be few outward signs on March 1 that the cuts have been launched." Social Security recipients will get their checks, for example, and soldiers will get paid. So unless people work for the government or do business with it, "the general public may not much notice the cuts," at least not at first, says The Associate Press' Andrew Taylor. Eventually, "furloughs of workers like air traffic controllers, meat inspectors, FBI agents, the Border Patrol and park rangers will mean an inevitable deterioration of noticeable government services," but facing non-immediate pain, most people can afford to be blasé about the sequester.

4. Both sides believe the cuts will help them politically

"We are facing a moment in Washington," says Michael Scherer at TIME. In a rare instance of bipartisan agreement, "both Republicans and Democrats have decided, in poker lingo, to go all-in on the same hand": Neither side is bluffing about letting the sequestration take effect, and their partisans outside of the capital are largely going along:

Both sides agree it is bad policy, which will be unnecessarily harmful to the economy, and both believe this bad policy once enacted in all of its ugliness will be politically beneficial to their team. Both cannot be right. Economic confidence is likely to be sapped. GDP could take a haircut. Unemployment will go up. Government employees will be furloughed, or might lose their jobs. Government services may be reduced, and military readiness could be sacrificed. So the nation is likely to lose. The unanswered question is who will come out of the process politically ahead, or losing less. So for those watching at home, sit back and try to restrain your rage. [TIME]

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