On the eve of the perceived financial calamity known as sequestration, conservatives are aiming to undermine the quality that President Obama needs most to win the battle of the budget: his credibility.
"Americans can no longer trust President Obama or his administration on the supposed effects of sequestration," says Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, a conservative political action committee.
In fact, some conservatives are beginning to wonder if, when sequestration hits Friday, nothing very consequential will happen, at least not immediately. They say Obama and his allies have been engaged in fear-mongering and rewriting history. And Republican legislators argue that administration officials are in danger of botching the actual sequester by politicizing the required spending cuts and overplaying their hand.
As Friday approaches, administration officials continue to sound the alarm. Attorney General Eric Holder says the sequester will make Americans "less safe."
"This is something that is going to have an impact on the safety of this country," Holder told ABC News. "And anybody that says otherwise is either lying or saying something that runs contrary to the facts."
Holder argues that the budget cuts anticipated under the sequester would damage efforts to prevent terrorism and fight crime.
President Obama has summoned bipartisan leaders of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to the White House Friday, after the sequester has begun to bite, to discuss ways to find a compromise.
But GOP leaders argue that if Obama were serious about making a deal, he would have called this meeting long ago instead of campaigning across the country, predicting dire consequences from the sequester, and accusing the GOP of ruinous obstructionism.
Conservatives are concerned about automatic defense cuts, which many believe would be draconian and would hurt the military. But they are growing less worried about domestic cuts. Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp says the overall dangers of sequestration are greatly exaggerated. "Most Americans are going to wake up Friday morning and yawn," Huelskamp predicts.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn says federal officials have the flexibility to minimize the worst potential outcomes if they want to do so.
Administration officials argue, however, that the law doesn't give the government that kind of flexibility.
Collegio, focusing on what he calls the administration's lack of credibility, cites a Washington Post story showing that Education Secretary Arne Duncan was wrong to say recently that teachers "are getting pink slips" because of the sequester.
The Post reported that the sole example that Duncan could cite—from Kanawha County in West Virginia—was false because the county sent "transfer notices," not layoff notices, to about 100 educators warning them that they might be assigned other jobs. And county officials said they did so because of state-level changes in funding for programs affecting the poor, not because of sequestration.
The credibility question is important because, if the automatic spending cuts triggered under the law's sequestration procedures take effect as scheduled Friday, it will be up to the administration to carry them out. And Republicans are ready to pounce if they find examples of mismanagement or of politicizing the spending cuts to hurt Republicans or to minimize the impact on Obama's allies.
The administration's credibility took some other hits this week. The Department of Homeland Security announced that hundreds of illegal immigrants would be released from federal detention because of the looming sequester and its potential to limit the flow of money to the agency.
House Speaker Boehner called the release an "outrageous" decision based on misplaced priorities. Republican legislators are demanding a full explanation from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Conservatives say this is a part of an administration effort to scare the public and pressure GOP legislators into accepting Obama's demands for tax increases in order to end the sequester.
In another dustup potentially affecting the administration's credibility, journalist Bob Woodward says Obama has moved the "goal posts" by using the current budget fight to seek more tax revenue. Woodward, who helped break the Watergate story a generation ago and who is one of the most respected reporters in Washington, says his research shows that tax increases were not what Obama and legislators agreed to earlier when Congress passed the sequestration law and Obama signed it into law.
At that time, Obama accepted that only spending cuts would be required through the sequestration process. Yet currently, Obama is seeking a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to get beyond sequestration.
Over the past week, White House officials have been feuding with Woodward over his criticism that the administration is unfairly attempting to distance Obama from the concept of sequestration, even though Woodward says it was the administration's idea in the first place.
Recent polls have shown that more Americans side with Obama rather than the GOP in the sequestration battle. But some conservatives think that will change as the budget struggle moves into a more intense phase.
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.