Most Americans don’t think much of campaign promises. Politicians declare they’ll cut taxes, trim spending, help you lose ten pounds and even walk your dog for you.
And if you think people in middle America really don’t believe campaign promises, you should try those who operate inside the Beltway.
President Obama delivered a whopper of a campaign promise at the third and final presidential debate this week with Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, FL.
“The sequester isn’t something I proposed. It will not happen,” Mr. Obama said.
Sure, crowed everyone in Washington, from Capitol Hill, to the Pentagon or over at Lockheed Martin. They’ll believe it when they see it.
For the uninitiated, the sequester is a series of massive, arbitrary spending cuts that will start indiscriminately in January unless Congress acts. The funds are in essence walled off, or sequestered, from being spent. Congress and the administration find themselves in this corner as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011. That package raised the debt ceiling and simultaneously created a “supercommittee” to craft at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. The supercommittee failed. Thus, the sequester is set to kick in come January.
Unless something happens.
Almost immediately following the debate, Fox’s Ed Henry reported that top Obama adviser David Plouffe tried to burnish what the president said about the sequester. Plouffe repeatedly told reporters the sequester “should not happen.”
Asked the morning after the debate about what the president meant in his remark, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said he believed “the president has a strategy for dealing with it.”
Connolly is a former Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors just outside the nation’s capital. Many of his constituents work for the federal government or the military. They would disproportionately bear the weight of the sequester.
Connolly asserts that saying that the sequester won’t happen “strengthens (the president’s) hand” and adds that “the president is setting the tone.”
The Virginia Democrat told reporters he thinks the president will reveal his ideas to tackle the sequester sometime in the coming weeks. But few believed Mr. Obama when he said the sequester wasn’t going to happen during the debate.
“I think everyone laughed it off,” said one senior House GOP staffer about the remark. “It was ridiculous.”
Others were more surprised than anything.
“Well, that’s certainly new,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “I’m curious to see what his plan is for preventing it. While the House has passed legislation to prevent it, the White House has presented no plan.”
And some believed the president’s remark simply strained credulity.
“Forgive me if I have doubts about (President Obama’s) newfound desire to resolve the problem in a presidential debate, no less,” groused Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
About half of the mandatory cuts imposed by the sequester come from the Pentagon. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) has worked for nearly a year now to educate the public, fellow lawmakers and journalists about what the sequester means for the nation’s military.
“It is a nice line,” said McKeon. “If the president is determined that these cuts won’t happen, why has he drug it out this long?”
For months we’ve heard that everyone will have to wait until “after the election” to grapple with the oppressive list of “fiscal cliff” issues bearing down on the nation. That includes the sequester, expiring tax cuts, unemployment benefits and a host of other fiscal issues. Congressional aides are discussing various contingencies to deal with the fiscal cliff late this year. But no one knows exactly what form these proposals may take because no one knows who will control the levers of power. So it’s not like anyone has laid out a draft of a concrete schematic if say, the scenario is a Romney presidency and a Republican Senate. Or an Obama presidency and a Republican Senate. Or a Romney presidency and a Democratic Senate. Or an Obama presidency and a Democratic Senate.
Everyone will evaluate how they want to wrestle with the sequester depending upon those outcomes. There may even be some requisite vote whipping too. Plus, policymakers already have a cafeteria-style set of options when it comes to choosing which approach they could take. If they want to undo the sequester, yet find some cuts, they could pull from various proposals already outlined in last year’s supercommittee talks, discussions on a “grand bargain” between President Obama and Boehner, the Bowles-Simpson commission or the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force.
A source familiar with the plans says the sides are likely to “look at those models and evaluate what people had interest in and what they didn’t.” Then, Congressional leaders and the administration would take the temperature of rank-and-file lawmakers to assess what they would be willing to stomach. There are certainly some members, especially on the left, who would like to see the sequester go through. That’s simply because the sequester really nails the defense community. Others are more pragmatic and realize the sequester would gore all ox’s. So they want to forge a compromise to shut it off.
But how they get there is anybody’s guess. And it’s a far cry from President Obama’s emphatic declaration that the sequester “will not happen” earlier in the week.
Regardless, this is a statement from the President of the United States about one of the most crucial issues facing the nation over the next six months. It’s not something that was leaked. It’s not something coming from a “senior administration official” or the analysis of an old Washington hand who understands the biorhythms of legislation and politics. This came directly from the president in front of a live, national TV audience. And it was more than just a campaign promise or even a pledge. It was a pronouncement from the highest office in the land.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that sequester “was never meant to be implemented.” Lawmakers say the sequester was simply a threat, a Sword of Damocles that they lorded over the heads of the supercommittee to avert failure. It was also a carrot in the Budget Control Act to coax lawmakers who were skittish about raising the debt ceiling. The sequester served as a backup plan to give those lawmakers cover if the supercommittee failed to agree on the cuts. That meant at least $1.2 trillion in cuts were on the way – hook or crook.
There’s a famous scene in Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” where Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is forced to do the daily briefing with reporters because the press secretary had a dental emergency. After a few questions, Lyman strays from his talking points and realizes the press corps backed him into a corner. He winds up saying that the president “has a secret inflation plan.” Lyman then goes with his tail between his legs to the president to let him know the White House had a “secret plan to fight inflation.”
President Obama’s remark about the sequester was not The West Wing nor a sarcastic crack by a cocky staffer. It came directly from him. People take such comments seriously. Except this time, they’re not.
That is, unless the president has a secret plan to avert the sequester that no one yet knows about.
– Fox’s Ed Henry and Kara Rowland contributed to this report.