How Chuck Hagel and the sequester stalled Obama’s agenda

Looking back, we can identify two things that seriously eroded the president’s position. The first was Hagel. In the weeks prior to Hagel’s nomination, few could imagine that 41 Republican senators would end up opposing a former Republican senator for secretary of defense. But the battle over Hagel—the vetting of his positions on the Middle East, Iran, and the U.S. nuclear deterrent; the revelation of anti-Israel remarks he had made in the past; his horrible performance during his confirmation hearing, which revealed him to be completely unqualified—rallied Republicans against the president at a critical juncture. It also had the effect, in a body that seems incapable of dealing with more than one controversy at a time, of slowing down the rest of the president’s agenda.

Robert Reich, the left-wing economist, predicted as much. “There is a puzzle here,” he said during a Jan. 6 discussion of Hagel on ”This Week.” “With all the fights that the president has coming up, why is he doing this? I mean, there are a lot of other people he could be putting up, but why is he expending political capital in this way? I don’t understand.” Credit Reich for prescience and good judgment—if only in this particular case.

Actually, also credit him for predicting that Obama’s sequester strategy would fail. “The White House apparently believes the best way to strengthen its hand in the upcoming ‘sequester’ showdown with Republicans is to tell Americans how awful the spending cuts will be, and blame Republicans for them,” Reich wrote on Feb. 25. “It won’t work.” And it didn’t work. The White House’s hyperbolic sequester approach backfired. Many of the claims made by administration officials were exposed as false. And some of the actions those officials took—such as releasing illegal immigrants in detention and closing the White House to tours—were clumsy and harmful.

The situation is beginning to resemble the start of the most recent second term.

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