Obama tries to regain the narrative on the Sequester
Apr 5, 2013

Obama tries to regain the narrative on the Sequester


When Obama decided to give back 5% of his salary to the Treasury, he made a political move not done since Herbert Hoover. In so doing, he undoubtedly aims to reclaim the momentum and the narrative on the Sequester that has been lost over the last month.Before the Sequester was implemented, public opinion was largely on Obama's side with enormous attention being given to the threat. Now that it is in place, however, that attention has waned, and there is little public pressure being put on either party to end the Sequester as soon as possible; Obama's poll numbers have sharply dropped relative to Congressional Republicans.

More importantly, time happened. The news media is good at reporting new things that occur, but much less good at keeping the momentum up on a story that persists with little change, even if it is a negative thing that persists. There was tones of stories about the sequester leading up to it, as this big dramatic thing was about to happen. After it happened, however, the reporting dropped way off. Unless one is directly impacted by a furlough  say, effects like marginally lower quality services, and downward pressures on economic growth, even if legitimate in aggregate, are just not easily felt individually and not easily noticed unless someone is there talking about it. Obama tried to ratchet up the threat before hand by and got some egg on his face due to some over the top claims that were objectively false about the consequences of the Sequester. After the Sequester went into place, he got some attention by canceling the tours of the White House, but it just came off as petty and not something to worry too much about. 

By returning his salary, Obama buys himself an excellent round of positive attention, not just that he is a good guy for returning his salary, but more importantly as a reminder that the Sequester is still in place, and that there is significant pain being caused by it, even if we have forgotten or not noticed. It lets him paint the narrative that there really is something significant going on that takes a fairly historic move from him to respond to, and that we need to buckle down and deal with this as we go into the next segment of negotiations. The issue is worth drawing attention to and needs to be dealt with, but it was getting lost. 

Incidentally, by explaining the political dynamics, I don't mean to take away from Obama's act. He donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to various causes anyways, one could not say he is not charitable. He may very well genuinely believe he is doing the right thing reducing his pay while his employees are having theirs reduced. However, he also gets a political benefit that is certainly well calculated and, hopefully, will manifest in real returns. 

A genuinely bad idea:
Turn back the clock to when the original deal was passed into the law. The idea behind sequestration was that given how intractable the two sides were at agreeing on anything, they would agree to have this really bad thing - the Sequester - occur on a specific date to try and force them to make a deal by that time. The Sequester would be part spending cuts (with the idea that Democrats would object to those) and part defense cuts (with the idea that Republicans would object to those). With this big threat, the needed motivation to make a deal would help the process along. Incidentally, as previously noted, the deal was asymmetric from the start since the Democrats, and in particular Obama, strongly oppose defense cuts as well and this part would surely get overturned somehow. So the only threat was in the Democrats and spending. Balancing this asymmetry, was the entirely separate one sided threat to Republicans of the end of the Bush era tax cuts. 

Now of course, the big awful thing has happened. They didn't agree to a deal, and they couldn't even agree to avert the big awful thing from happening that they imposed on themselves. All it takes is an up/down vote to end it. The Canadian in me just has to laugh at the dysfunction. 

Republicans are for spending cuts. I disagree, at least as a general point, but I understand the perspective. However, the sequester cuts are among the worst ways to cut government spending with nonspecific across the board cuts on already established budgets that doesn't highlight and remove the worst excesses of government. Any person interested in effective governance, even effective small governance, should object to the truly ineffective way these cuts are implemented and should instead be trumpeting targeted cuts that eliminate the least beneficial and most wasteful programs first, leaving in tact efficient programs with large amounts of benefits. And of course, for those of us who believe the services offered are valuable, doubly so in a time of needed Keynsian spending not so called austerity to boost the economy, the entire thing reeks. 

If the question, however, is on scoring partisan victories, and a spending cut equals a point, the Republicans won. They got massive spending cuts, with no concessions and no political consequences. Even for those that recognize these cuts are an inefficient way to do cutting,  they will surely take the victory and move on. Indeed the GOP rhetoric has been precisely this simplistic, that spending cuts are generically a good thing, with no consideration for what is or what ought to be cut. If we want to change this, they need to feel political heat. To have political heat, Obama needs to get the narrative correct, and this is why it is so crucial that they regain that. If nothing else, he paid $20,000 to buy himself a positive news cycle. 

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