Sequestration and the Limits of Obama's 'Jedi Mind Meld'

The GOP has no political incentive to work with Obama to solve sequestration.


President Obama is pushing the Senate to move forward on gun legislation.

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Are you ready for sequestration? If you're like most Americans, you really have no idea. While polls show that most voters don't like the sound of the sequester, they also don't know much about it. According to a Pew Research survey released this week fewer than 1 in 5 Americans understand sequestration "very well." Further, only 30 percent believe that sequestration will have a "major effect" on their lives.

Give it a month or two—those poll numbers will change as the effects of sequestration, gradual though they may be, take effect. Voters will have plenty of time to contemplate sequestration as they wait in longer lines at the airport or in the Emergency Room because the pared back corps of food inspectors let something rotten through; or, as they wait for unemployment benefits because they were among the 750,000 people the Congressional Budget Office estimates could lose their jobs by year's end if sequestration is allowed to take full effect, and so on … unless of course they don't. Some conservatives think that Americans will hardly notice the cuts in government spending. (If you were paying attention in the mid-1990s, you will recognize this as the shutdown fallacy.)

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This is because the latest act in the interminable government-by-crisis series has a new twist: The two sides have eschewed the standard last-minute solution and are careening toward a crash with the reality of voter sentiment. Each side has bet that the other is most imperiled.

Here's how you can tell that Obama has the stronger hand, for the moment at least: message consistency. The White House has for weeks driven a simple message: That Obama wants to replace the sequester's "meat cleaver" approach to deficit reduction with a "balanced" plan that includes both new tax revenues and spending cuts.

Republicans on the other hand have displayed the kind of messaging incoherence that comes with a position of weakness. Some argue that the sequester's $85 billion price tag is a pittance—only 2.5 percent of the federal budget (actually, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, it's closer to 8 percent of nondefense discretionary spending and 13 percent of defense spending—something more than chump change). At the same time others on the right say that the sequester is as bad as advertised and all Obama's fault because, they claim, he conceived of the idea (an assertion which raises two questions: so what, and do Republicans think voters are dumb enough to forget that Congress had a coequal role in passing the Budget Control Act, which contained the sequester?).

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Yet another complaint coming from the right is about Obama's preferring to talk directly to the voters rather than to Republican members of Congress. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California this week called Obama a "road show president," adding that "this is not the time to be out campaigning." It's a complaint that has gained some traction in the double-pox caucus, pundits who compulsively apportion equal fault on both houses for partisan gridlock. In this case the complaint goes something like this: Sure, Republicans are being unreasonable by refusing to include even a penny of new tax increases, but Obama is equally at fault because he hasn't gotten the GOP to stop being unreasonable. For example the kind of deal Obama favors "is what's needed, and the Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes," The Washington Post's editorial page opined this week. "But if that's what's needed, why is Mr. Obama not leading the way to a solution?"

If only Obama would stop campaigning and instead just sit down with congressional Republicans and exert magical leadership—a "Jedi mind meld," as Obama put it today —Republicans would fall in line, in spite of four years of evidence to the contrary. (Making the best of a sci fi gaffe that set nerd-dom ablaze—merging the "Jedi mind trick" of Star Wars with Star Trek's "Vulcan mind meld"—the White House Tweeted out a photo of Obama from the presser with the caption: "These cuts aren't the solutions Americans are looking for. To deny the facts would be illogical," along with a customized URL, leading to the president's sequestration replacement plan.)