Now that the infamous sequester is phasing in, the question facing Washington is whether President Barack Obama can hold on to his advantage in public opinion polls, as he makes deep cuts in many programs, as required by law, and as he tries to avoid even messier budget confrontations with Congress in the future.
Americans want their presidents to take command and make things work, but that's not what's happening in the dysfunctional world that is official Washington.
A meeting at the White House Friday morning between Obama and congressional leaders failed to find a last-minute compromise, meaning that $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts will start to phase in over the weekend. These cuts were built into the law many months ago, with the hope that Washington's leaders could find a better solution to cutting the deficit. But there was no deal.
Obama admitted after the meeting that the result won't be a fiscal catastrophe, even though his administration has been beating the drum in recent weeks to predict dire consequences from the sequester. The results, administration officials have predicted, would include less protection from terrorism, reduced military readiness, fewer food safety inspections, and furloughs for many federal workers.
But Friday, Obama played down the severity of the impact, at least immediately. "We will get through this," he said. "This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as people have said. It's just dumb."
But he said things will get worse over time, as the spending cuts go deeper.
"It's going to hurt," he said. "It's going to hurt individual people and it's going to hurt the economy overall." He blamed congressional Republicans for ruling out more revenue increases to solve the government's fiscal problem, but held out hope that as the budget cuts proliferate over the coming weeks and months, GOP legislators will have a change of heart.
Republicans say Obama has used scare tactics and hyped the potential effects of the sequester as he tried to pressure Congress to accept both spending cuts and tax increases to cut the deficit, instead of resorting to the across-the-board spending cuts required by the sequester. But Obama conceded Friday, "I don't anticipate a huge financial crisis." And he said there's a limit to what he can do to resolve the stalemate. "I'm not a dictator," he told reporters. "I'm the president."
After the session with Obama, House Speaker John Boehner said his position hasn't changed: no more revenue, only spending cuts.
"Let's make it clear that the president got his tax hikes on January 1," Boehner said, referring to an earlier, temporary agreement on the budget. "This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem here in Washington."
The next battle will be over keeping the government functioning beyond March 27, when funding is scheduled to dry up. Boehner said he will have the Republican-controlled House consider a continuing resolution next week to fund the government after March 27 and avoid a shutdown. He urged the Democratic controlled Senate to do the same.
Although a plurality of Americans prefers Obama's "balanced approach" to deficit reduction, combining tax increases on the wealthy and spending cuts, according to opinion polls, the next several weeks will be precarious for Obama. His administration must now decide exactly how the sequester cuts will be imposed. Myriad interest groups will be watching to see if they bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Republicans will cry foul if Obama attacks their favored programs, or if there are snafus in administering the cuts. And everyday Americans will be alert to new sacrifices that they will have to endure.
A prominent Democrat who advised President Bill Clinton told me that Obama lacks a long-term fiscal narrative, and this has his fellow party members worried. "He calls for 'balance,'" the former adviser says. "But now it's going to come down to the details of the programs that are cut, and that will be a different story."
Already, some are widening their criticism and arguing that the real problem is the dysfunction of Washington, where Obama is at the top of the pyramid.
"As the sequester hits today, manufacturers are again reminded and frustrated by Washington's inability to take on the hard challenges facing our country," says Aric Newhouse, senior vice president for policy and government relations for the National Association of Manufacturers.
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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 email@example.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.