President Obama was widely criticized by many Democrats for what they perceived as his caving in and compromising with Republicans during the summer debate on increasing the debt ceiling limit. What riled most of the President’s supporters was his seeming unwillingness to fight congressional Republicans over terminating the Bush era tax cuts. As a result, President Obama’s poll numbers plummeted and a narrative of an impotent presidency began to take shape, with many pundits questioning his re-election chances in 2012.
When the President signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (S. 365) on August 2, he, unbeknownst to most Americans, cleverly boxed Republicans into a corner and gained the upper hand. President Obama willingly took a momentary hit in public opinion knowing that the budget act gave him tremendous leverage, and put him in position to expose the leadership vacuum in the GOP. By temporarily surrendering the fight over the Bush tax cuts, the White House embedded in the Budget Control Act a poison pill – sequestration – that helps him to not only achieve his ultimate goal of deficit reduction and tax equity, but frames the debate in such a way that makes congressional Republicans defenseless. Ironically, the deal Republicans initially rejected, the so-called “grand bargain” President Obama attempted to strike with House Speaker John Boehner, included cuts to domestic programs important to Democrats and was a far better outcome for the GOP than the arrangement now at play due to the deficit committee’s failure.
The sequestration, or automatic cuts, mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 are modeled on the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act of 1985, and are evenly split between defense and non-defense spending. They must total $1.2 trillion over 10 years, and include all non-exempt discretionary, mandatory and entitlement programs. There are provisions set forth for security related allocations. Yesterday, President Obama held a media briefing (see the video at NSpicks on the NorthStarNews.com home page) and made clear to Congress that he will veto any legislation that attempts to undo the automatic cuts that are now in play since the deficit committee failed to come up with a deal. By taking a hard line stand President Obama has now forced Republicans to swallow huge cuts in defense spending, a favorite of the right, or come back to the table and negotiate a deal that includes tax revenue. He also made certain that many of his priorities were secure. To his credit, the President protected Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare beneficiary payments from the sequestration process. Cuts to Medicaid and Medicare are restricted to reductions in provider reimbursements. The Pell Grant Program is also protected from sequestration and the Budget Control Act of 2011 retains the maximum award at $5,550 for FY 2012. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formally called food stamps) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs under the Department of Agriculture are estimated to suffer across-the-board cuts of only about 5 percent under sequestration. There are some programs in the Department of Education for K-12 education that might be affected by sequestration. For the most part though, President Obama embedded protections for important programs favored by Democrats in the budget act he signed in August.
No matter what, the President can claim victory by declaring that through sequestration he is lowering the deficit and make the argument to voters that the large cuts in defense and other entitlement programs is due to the failure of congressional Republicans to take a “balanced” approach to trim the deficit. The President has now effectively isolated Republicans and defused their “class warfare” charge against the administration by protecting programs important to most middle class Americans, holding the line against cuts to programs assisting the poor, and making Republicans bear the blame for defense cuts that ultimately will harm middle class Americans serving in the military. If there is a better deal to make, and there is, Republicans will now have to come back to the table with a plan that includes tax revenue.
Photos courtesy of the White House