The White House is not positioned to win on the sequester showdown. That's got congressional Democrats worried. Nevertheless, President Obama is feeling confident that he has the upper hand. There's a good reason to believe he does.
Senate Democrats started worrying during the fiscal cliff negotiations in December. They warned President Obama not to offer a two-month postponement of the spending cuts as part of the deal to avert the fiscal cliff. Their reasoning: if the White House separated the tax hikes from the spending cuts, Democrats would lose leverage. And they did.
Every battle is about leverage. Democrats had the leverage in the fiscal cliff negotiations in December. If Republicans refused to make a deal, the Bush tax cuts would have expired and most Americans would have had to pay higher taxes. Republicans couldn't let that happen. So they agreed to let tax rates go up for the rich. They caved.
Republicans had caved twice before.
In August 2011, they allowed the nation's debt ceiling to be raised. If they hadn't, it would have endangered the full faith and credit of the United States and thrown world financial markets into turmoil. That threat gave the White House leverage.
In early 2012, the payroll tax cut was due to expire. President Obama wanted to extend it for a year. Republicans insisted that the tax cut extension be paid for with additional spending cuts. If there was no deal, payroll taxes would have gone up immediately. Republicans couldn't let that happen, especially in an election year. So they caved, again.
Now spending cuts are on the table. House Speaker John Boehner said last week, "Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he's already back for more. The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed... Spending is the problem, spending must be the focus."
This time, if nothing happens, $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts will go into effect. Republicans seem unfazed by that prospect. The White House had calculated that Republicans would never allow the spending cuts to go into effect because the cuts would fall more heavily on the military. That turned out to be a miscalculation.
Because guess what? Most Republicans don't care. They are willing to take the meat axe to defense spending if that's the only way to get spending down. A few defense hawks are upset by that prospect -- Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham most prominently. But most Republicans are falling in line with the Tea Party: spending is spending.
The American public seems far less apprehensive about the sequester than they were about the fiscal cliff back in December. In the USA Today-Pew poll, only 27 percent said they were paying a lot of attention to the sequester debate. Back in 2011, 50 percent said they were paying a lot of attention to the prospect that the country could go into default if there was no deal on the debt ceiling. The public does not seem to be in a panic over the spending cuts, especially because most entitlement spending will not be affected. That, too, gives Republicans leverage.
The Pew poll gave people a list of 19 government programs and asked whether spending on each of them should be cut. Most Americans said no for 18 out of the 19 programs (all but foreign aid). But when asked whether the deficit should be reduced through "spending cuts" or "tax increases," nearly three quarters said it should be done mostly through spending cuts -- undefined.
That's precisely what the sequester is: undefined spending cuts. More leverage for Republicans.
The fact that the public is not in a panic over the sequester might have something to do with the words. "Default," "fiscal cliff" and "government shutdown" are scary words. They sound like doom. "Sequesters," not so much.
Given all that leverage, Republicans should win this political battle. But they may not. In fact, the White House is confident that it will win. Why? Because even though Republicans can make the case that they have a better message, Democrats have a better messenger.
The Obama administration is mounting a full-court press to warn voters about what could happen if the sequester goes into effect. They are rushing to define those undefined spending cuts. "Once these cuts take effect," the president said in his radio address on Saturday, "thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off ... These cuts will set back medical science for a generation."
Speaker Boehner wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "As the President's outrage about the sequester grows in coming days, Republicans have a simple response: Mr. President, we agree that your sequester is bad policy. What spending are you willing to cut to replace it?"
Whom do Americans find more credible? It's not even close. The percentage in the USA Today-Pew poll that approves of the job President Obama is doing: 51 percent. Approval of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing: 25 percent. By an 18-point margin (49 percent to 31 percent), the public says Republicans would be more to blame than President Obama if no deal is reached before the March 1 deadline.
Certainly the president is taking a risk by campaigning against the sequester. His brand is that of a conciliator, not a warrior. When Americans see dysfunction in Washington, he is part of it. And the public may remain unfazed by the cuts. Unless they throw the country into another recession, in which case the president is likely to share the blame for it.
But whom have Republicans got to take on President Obama? John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? Marco Rubio? Paul Ryan? All either unknown or tainted by their association with a despised Congress. Republicans may have an argument, but President Obama is far more likable and believable. In politics, that goes a long way.