Obama Plays Public Against GOP on Sequester

Republicans split on whether or not to oppose across-the-board cuts.

President Barack Obama walks off of Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, after returning from a Democratic retreat in Annapolis, Md.

President Barack Obama walks off of Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Feb. 6, 2013, after returning from a Democratic retreat in Annapolis, Md.

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After days of playing up the dire impact scheduled across-the-board spending cuts will have on national defense, and reportedly downplaying the impact such cuts would have on domestic programs, the Obama administration has recently been emphasizing the latter.

Republican critics say it's all part of an elaborate messaging game being played by the White House in order to build public support for its preferred outcome: a short term reprieve from the $1.2 trillion in cuts while a deficit reduction plan with equal parts spending cuts and increased tax revenues is crafted.

"[President] Obama is using all the tools in his public relations arsenal to scare Americans toward his position on the sequester," says Ron Bonjean, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican political consultant. "If the sequester really happens, then it will be quite damaging and if you have real people that will be affected by it, that's a very powerful tool."

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Last week, both Republicans and Democrats were critical of the Obama administration's resistance to discuss how the cuts, scheduled to take effect March 1, would affect agencies other than defense

"It's been a gag order," Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Politico.

Days later, the White House issued a fact sheet on how the cuts would affect programs like Head Start, the National Institute of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. Mikulski also scheduled a hearing for Thursday detailing the potential impacts, at which Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan are all scheduled to testify.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a California Republican, dinged the White House's communication approach Monday in an interview to the Huntsville (Ala.) Times.

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"The White House finally broke their silence on the consequences President Obama's sequester would have on domestic spending," he said. "I wouldn't downplay those important impacts, but I was stunned at the president's silence on national security risks and I am frustrated that he continues to look to our men and women in uniform to pay the cost of America's debt crisis."

Ford O'Connell, a Republican political strategist who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign and who is a U.S. News blogger, says the White House is being savvy with its approach.

"It's an effective move by the White House if your goal is to make sure the sequester doesn't happen, playing both sides," he says. "They are trying to get public opinion to lean on the GOP. You've already got the right touting why the defense cuts aren't good, now you just have to boost the left as to why the domestic policy cuts aren't good."

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Meanwhile, House Republicans have done their best to label the upcoming cuts the "Obama sequester," keying in on a passage in Bob Woodward's The Price of Politics that credits Obama with coming up with the budget idea in the first place, as a means of motivating Democrats and Republicans into making cuts to sacred cows.

"They basically both failed in their responsibilities," says a former House GOP aide. "So this was a way to kick the can down the road and now that the can is here, Republicans are trying to be united but it's a pretty tough issue to be united on if the messaging is you're crippling our national defense and you're cutting our valuable domestic programs."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he will put forward a proposal this week aimed at preventing the sequester, though he billed it as a "balanced" blend of spending cuts and revenue increases, something House Republicans have said they would oppose.

Obama, after laying out his priorities in his State of the Union address, is scheduled to stump for his agenda in North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois the remainder of the week.