President Obama was repeatedly blaming Republicans this week for the sequester—the across-the-board budget cuts set to start taking effect in March—but what the president didn't mention was that it was the White House which designed the sequester to kick in if negotiations failed. Then, instead of negotiating with Congress for the last several weeks, the president decided to leave Washington to campaign against Republicans who can't reach an agreement with him about averting the sequester. They can't reach an agreement because Republicans have no one to negotiate with; the negotiations have failed so the sequester takes effect. It's the perfect Catch-22.
Just as he did in the fiscal cliff ordeal, the president is using scare tactics again: warning voters about airport delays, lax borders, unsafe streets, and thousands of teacher layoffs. Peggy Noonan called it governing by freak out a few weeks ago. She was right about the freaking out, but this has nothing to do with governing. It's all about high-stakes, divide-and-conquer politics.
"It is a sincere conviction among Republicans that the president's negotiating posture isn't about getting a deal done, it's a zero-sum political game where his aim is to destroy the Republican [House] majority in the next election," Republican strategist Steve Schmidt told the Washington Times. "It's certainly not an effective strategy for a leader in search of a deal."
The president's divisive strategy fits his rhetorical style. If there's one thing we've learned about Barack Obama over the last four years, it's that he's not an incrementalist. He's spoken about how he sees himself as a transformational president. He likes cliffs and crises. He likes government takeovers of entire industries (the automobile industry and the student loan business, to name just two), and broad, sweeping "reform" of entire segments of the economy, as we saw with the Affordable Care Act. He talks about ending crony capitalism, but there's a certain appeal for him in picking winners and losers for additional "investments" because deep down, like so many on the left, he thinks he knows what's best for the rest of us. Most of all, he likes to engage in class warfare, build resentment, and demonize his opponents, saying they like to leave the disabled to fend for themselves, cling to guns and religion, and "end Medicare as we know it."
So it's really no surprise when he describes the sequester—which really is only $85 billion in projected spending reductions, or 2.4 percent of the federal budget—in the worst terms possible, because it feeds that same narrative. And it's no mystery why he has refused to negotiate a deal in order to avert some of the worst aspects of it. It's all about politics, not about governing.
There's a disconnect from reality here. This week, the White House published a list of the effects of the sequester on all 50 states, and had cabinet members make the rounds of the news shows outlining the dire consequences. The problem is, you can't have your attorney general say that the sequester will make the public less safe, and your head of Homeland Security say that our national security will be weakened, and then leave town to make speeches instead of negotiating. If things are really going to be that bad, why hasn't the president been at the table the whole time working on a solution? Either things aren't really going to be that bad, or he doesn't really want a solution. He comes across as disingenuous.
Like most Americans, I'm frustrated with the way the president is handling this, angry at the inaction and the campaigning, uncomfortable with the divisive language he's using. But I can't say I'm surprised. He really is the most polarizing president we've ever had.