During the Monday night foreign policy debate, President Obama surprised the audience with the statement that sequestration “will not happen.” Either this was a gaffe or he pulled off the next deft move in the political/legislative sequestration battle.
Governor Romney was questioning the President’s policies on military cuts, and Obama brushed aside the criticism and dismissed the issue that has split Washington for the last six months.
On one side are legislators against these mandated draconian cuts, many defense analysts, and even the President’s own Secretary of Defense. On the other is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) and—everyone thought, until Monday—the White House.
Obama declared that “the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that the Congress has proposed.” This was characterized as “mistaken” by Bob Woodward, who stood behind the account of the genesis of this problem in his book The Price of Politics, in which high-ranking Obama aides brought the entire concept to Reid and then sold it to congressional Republicans. Woodward reiterated later, “What the President said is not correct.”
Obama next flatly stated, “It will not happen.” This stunned the wonks and legislators listening, because—despite Press Secretary Jay Carney’s protestations that this has been Obama’s position all along—this is a huge departure from the President’s repeated declaration that he would veto any solution that did not include massive new tax increases.
The final “move” was the immediate deployment of a phalanx of messaging personnel to walk it back as soon as the debate cameras were off and the voters were no longer listening. The end result: two very different messages to two very different audiences.
There are efficiencies that can be wrung from the defense budget, but the sequestration cuts are not the right way to get them. The inordinate cuts (47 percent of the total cuts under sequestration come from defense, which is less than 20 percent of government spending) should be offset with cuts to other spending.
For example, entitlement programs are by far the largest and fastest-growing portion of the budget, yet they are essentially untouched by the Budget Control Act and sequestration. Most other spending has grown across the board and should also be brought under control. In short, there are plenty of places that need reductions. But harmful tax hikes are not the answer, regardless of how much Obama and Reid want them.
An adult answer should be developed through a real bipartisan effort to address the needs of the nation for the common defense and for fiscal health. Thus far, there has been much political, verbal, and public relations maneuvering but little willingness on the part of the White House and Senate leadership to have a productive discussion.
The President seems to want to have his cake and eat it, too. His flipping during the debate—and flopping back as soon as the microphones are off—is unhelpful.