Did Obama blow it on sequestration?

By even Fox News’ account, Barack Obama’s answer on sequestration last night was one of his best moments.  Summoning a commanding presence, Obama emphatically pledged to the American public that the planned sequestration of funds that would cut the Pentagon an additional $500 billion over the next ten years on top of a previous cut of the same magnitude “will not happen.” Many of Obama’s campaign pledges have expiration dates, but this one didn’t even make it to the end of the night before the campaign began reversing itself:

Megyn, you mentioned the sequester earlier, the massive cut to the Defense Department, the Pentagon, that’s coming up on January 2. The president said tonight that the sequester will not happen. That was a key moment. And it did make news. Well now, the White House, the campaign is back-pedaling. David Plouffe saying in the Spin Room just behind you, pressed on this, he said repeatedly to reporters, everyone in Washington agrees the sequester, quote, “should not happen.” And asked again, and he said it should not happen. So apparently ‘will not happen’ has become ‘should not happen.’ We’ll see what happens with that.

Politico’s Philip Ewing reports that Obama’s vow not only caught his campaign off guard, but Democrats in Congress too — and gave Republicans a big opening to attack Obama for his lack of interest in the issue so far:

President Barack Obama startled Washington during Monday night’s foreign policy debate when he said billions in automatic Pentagon cuts “will not happen” — a line that could weaken his bargaining power during an epic spending and tax fight expected when Congress returns. …

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) said the president is “not a dictator yet,” expressing surprise over the president’s prediction during the debate that sequestration “will not happen.”

“I was astonished, I almost fell out of my chair when the president said, ‘Don’t worry, sequestration won’t happen.’ We’ve been begging the president to sit down with us to avoid what his own secretary of defense said would be a devastating blow to our national security. He just said, ‘Don’t worry, sequestration won’t happen.’ He’s not a dictator yet,” McCain told POLITICO Live.

Other Republicans piled on as well with attacks about what they called wasted months in which Obama hasn’t negotiated with lawmakers over a way to avert sequestration.

“It is a nice line, but for more than a year the president hasn’t lifted a finger to avert the crisis,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) “Instead, his policies and positions have increased uncertainty for our troops and the men and women who support them. The effects of sequestration can already be felt. Jobs have already been lost. The president and his party in the Senate have failed to offer even a single real solution that could resolve sequestration. If the president is determined that these cuts won’t happen, why has he drug it out this long?”

Obama tried to distance himself from the sequestration during the debate by claiming, “First of all, the sequester is not something I proposed.”  However, Bob Woodward wrote in his book about the debt-ceiling deal that the sequester proposal did originate with the White House, not with Congress:

“The sequester is not something that I’ve proposed,” Obama said during the debate in Boca Raton, Fla. “It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.”

That directly contradicts a 2012 book from investigative journalist Bob Woodward — the Washington Post editor who, with Carl Bernstein, took down President Richard Nixon over the 1970s-era Watergate scandal.

“Then-OMB Director Jack Lew, now the White House chief of staff, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Woodward writes,” according to a Sept. 7 story appearing on the Politico website.

“Under the deal, which Republicans accepted after several rounds of bargaining, the federal debt ceiling was raised — staving off a potential financial crisis.”

In other words, we wouldn’t need to worry about the sequester at all if the White House hadn’t demanded it as a condition of the debt deal.  Why did the Obama administration insist on those deep cuts to defense spending that even their own Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, calls “devastating” to our national security?  They wanted to make sure that Republicans didn’t cut too much from other budget areas, and so determined to hold Defense hostage to the budget process.

So why is both the White House and Team Obama backpedaling now?  First, they’d prefer not to have to take ownership of the sequester at all.  More to the point, Obama’s declaration now makes him the biggest stakeholder in sequestration negotiations.  If he can’t fix the problem and stop the sequestration cuts, Obama will come out as the biggest loser in the process now, not Republicans.  Of course, in two weeks that point may become moot anyway, but Obama’s insistence that the cuts be stopped will seriously damage the negotiating positions of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi as well.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023