That’s the question Politico asks, but it’s really only half of Barack Obama’s problem in this standoff:
President Barack Obama’s greatest adversary in the latest budget battle isn’t the Republican leadership in Congress — it’s his confidence in his own ability to force a win.
He has been so certain of his campaign skills that he didn’t open a line of communication with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until Thursday, a week before the spending ax hits. And when they did finally hear from Obama, the calls were perfunctory, with no request to step up negotiations or invitations to the White House.
That’s because Obama’s all-in on an outside strategy, doing just about everything other than holding serious talks with Republicans. In the last two days alone, he’s courted local TV anchors, called in a select group of White House correspondents to talk off-the-record, chatted up black broadcasters, and announced plans to stump next week at Virginia’s Newport News Shipyard. Throughout, he’s talked in tough terms that signal little interest in compromise — or suggestion of backing down.
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.
In other words, he’s been great at yelling, “Wolf!” When it comes to action about what to do with the wolf — which may or may not be real — Obama has done nothing. He’s been relying on a compliant media to keep from pointing out that inconvenient fact, and so far, that seems to be working.
Normally, of course, budget matters wouldn’t require the high-wire act for negotiations. The House would pass one version of a budget, and the Senate another. When control of the two chambers are split, that allows both parties to pass their own priorities and then go into conference committee to hash out their differences. That system actually works, although no one ends up terribly happy with the results.
Obama, however, doesn’t want compromise. He wants to win at all costs, and that’s why he’s trotting out a parade of government workers to paint a horror story about what a reduction of 2.2% in the rate of federal spending — while the spending trajectory still increases — will do to Americans. Peggy Noonan calls this “government by freakout”:
The president’s sequester strategy is like Howard Beale in “Network”: “Woe is us. . . . And woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!”
It is always cliffs, ceilings and looming catastrophes with Barack Obama. It is always government by freakout.
That’s what’s happening now with the daily sequester warnings. Seven hundred thousand children will be dropped from Head Start. Six hundred thousand women and children will be dropped from aid programs. Meat won’t be inspected. Seven thousand TSA workers will be laid off, customs workers too, and air traffic controllers. Lines at airports will be impossible. The Navy will slow down the building of an aircraft carrier. Troop readiness will be disrupted, weapons programs slowed or stalled, civilian contractors stiffed, uniformed first responders cut back. Our nuclear deterrent will be indefinitely suspended. Ha, made that one up, but give them time.
Mr. Obama has finally hit on his own version of national unity: Everyone get scared together. …
[G]overnment by freakout carries a price. It wears people down. It doesn’t inject a sense of energy, purpose or confidence in those who do business in America, it does the opposite. The other day I was in a Wal-Mart in southern Florida. It was Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend but even accounting for that the mood and look of the place was different from what it was two and five years ago. Then, things seemed dynamic—what buys, what an array of products, what bustle in the aisles. This time it seemed tired, frayed, with fewer families and scarcer employees. It looked like a diorama of the Great Recession. What effect do all the successive fiscal cliffs, ceilings and sequesters, have on public confidence? On the public’s spirit? They only add to the sense that Washington is dysfunctional and cannot possibly help us out of the mire.
It shows the world we lurch from crisis to crisis by habit now. This makes us look incapable and beset.
And therefore more in need of a nanny state.