President Obama has the upper hand in his battle with congressional Republicans over who should be blamed if draconian budget cuts take effect next week.
One reason for Obama's success is that the president and his strategists are adept at making dramatic appeals to voters and using the presidential bully pulpit to shape the political narrative, while the GOP lacks a compelling message and a charismatic leader to rally around.
If there is a sequester, as the upcoming automatic budget cuts are called, Obama's campaign-style approach will get more intense as the administration announces more potential cuts in popular programs in an effort to pressure the GOP into agreeing to a compromise.
Democratic strategists say the Republicans, if they persist in opposing any further tax increases, will deepen the public impression that they are zealous curmudgeons who can only say no and mainly want to protect the rich and big corporations.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center bolsters Obama's position. Nearly half of Americans would blame the GOP if the cuts took place while fewer than one third would blame Obama. And 79 percent say additional tax increases should be part of a budget deal, which is Obama's position. Only 19 percent agree with the Republicans that the deficit should be reduced solely with spending cuts.
A separate Bloomberg poll shows that 55 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance while only 35 per cent give a positive rating to the GOP.
Obama argues that he will accept more spending cuts if the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate agree to more tax increases on the affluent. So far, all sides are at loggerheads. If they can't find a compromise, $85 billion in spending cuts will automatically take effect March 1.
Obama and his allies have been issuing a series of dire warnings about what would happen in the event of a sequester, attempting to put the GOP on the defensive. In one of eight interviews with local television anchors Wednesday, Obama told WJZ of Baltimore, "I don't know why it is in this town folks leave stuff to the last minute. You know, there's no other profession, no other industry, where people wait until the 11th hour to solve these big problems."
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner, while conceding that some of the automatic cuts would be damaging, especially the cuts in military spending, added that his fellow Republicans disagree with Obama's plan to raise taxes. Boehner says only targeted spending cuts would be appropriate.
In an essay in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Boehner wrote, "Mr. President, we agree that your sequester is bad policy. What spending are you willing to cut to replace it?"
Among the administration's predictions of what would happen if there is no deal:
• Reduced staffing by air-traffic controllers and a resulting reduction in air traffic and flight delays.
• Reduced funding for checkpoint security officers, resulting in slower movement of travelers through airports and longer lines.
• Fewer security officers at America's borders.
• Shortened work weeks for a majority of the Department of Defense's 800,000 civilian employes nationwide, with a particularly large impact in Virginia, California, Maryland, Texas, and Georgia. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the cuts would "result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force."
• Reduced benefits for millions of long-term unemployed.
• A $1.6 billion cut in funding for medical research.
• Furloughing more than 2,000 workers at the FBI, which would cause disruptions in a number of programs including the federal system for conducting background checks on potential gun buyers.
• Furloughing nearly one third of the workers in the Agriculture Department, which could mean a lack of inspectors for the meat industry and disruptions in the food supply.
Hope is fading among leaders of both parties in Washington that there will be a smooth resolution of the current struggle over the budget.
"We're in for constant battles," says a former White House adviser to President Ronald Reagan. "There's an ugliness in Washington that is debilitating."
He adds: "Hope and change from four years ago have become fear and loathing today. There is no trust. There is much less willingness to compromise and everybody is at their battle stations."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.