Calm in testing times

Tags: News

As March 1 deadline for fiscal battle nears, Obama believes to act from a greater position of strength, which is in contrast to the air of crisis that surrounded previous fiscal showdowns with Republicans

President Barack Obama is just seven days away from the first significant test of his second term as deep spending cuts loom, yet inside the White House a clear sense of confidence stands in contrast to the air of crisis that surrounded previous fiscal showdowns with Republicans.

The confrontation holds peril for both the president and Republicans. But for now, Obama believes he is acting from a greater position of strength, advisers say, pointing to several recent polls that show he holds an upper hand in the budget debate. Yet his standing would be at risk if the so-called sequester caused economic growth to collapse.

With little sign of movement as the March 1 deadline approaches, the president placed calls on Thursday to speaker John A Boehner and senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, in an outreach that Republicans interpreted as aimed as much at fending off criticism for not reaching out sooner to Congressional leaders as trying to open a new dialogue.

The calls came as the White House pursued a balancing act: use the power of the presidency to demonstrate the consequences of the $85 billion in across-the-board spending reductions while not allowing the fight to consume the administration and derail its second-term priorities.

As a result, the sense of urgency from earlier budget fights, which included all-night meetings and duelling news conferences at the White House and on Capitol Hill, have given way to more of a business-as-usual feeling in the West Wing. The budget debate is taking place alongside immigration and gun control discussions, rather than overtaking them.

It is a lesson, the president told his aides this week, drawn from the experience of back-to-back fights in 2011 over shutting down the government and raising the nation’s borrowing power. He has repeatedly personalised the argument and taken it outside Washington, including a trip on Tuesday to Newport News, Va, where the strong military presence will be affected if deep budget cuts are enacted.

The standoff with Republicans may not be a new one, but it is fundamentally different from the previous clashes that have ended with Obama victories. Several of Obama’s advisers who helped guide the administration through the previous fights are no longer at the White House.

The second-term team, led by the new chief of staff, Denis R McDonough, is confronting its biggest challenge yet. While McDonough was in the West Wing for past budget battles, his portfolio was national security.

Other advisers dealing with the sequester are also new, including Miguel Rodriguez, the top liaison to Congress, who was meeting aides to Congressional Republicans for the first time on Thursday. The positions of both sides seem to have hardened in recent weeks, rather than moved toward a compromise.

A new poll released Thursday suggests that after the last few years of repeated financial crises and wrangling between Congressional Republicans and the president, Americans may be increasingly inured to threats of economic doomsday.

The poll, by Pew Research Centre/USA Today, found that 49 per cent say the automatic cuts should be delayed if no deal is struck by the deadline, but a full 40 per cent say it would be preferable to let the cuts go into effect. Even one-third of Democrats back letting the cuts take effect; Republicans and independents are evenly split on the issue.

The public is not paying much attention to the issue, as a plurality of Americans say they have heard “a little” about the sequester, the poll found, and about 3 in 10 say they have heard nothing at all. But the public continues to support a mix of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit, with 7 in 10, including wide majorities across party lines, agreeing it is essential for the president to enact major deficit legislation this year.

The nationwide telephone survey was conducted on landlines and cell phones on February 13-18, with 1,504 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

In 2011, the president and Democrats were able to rally overwhelming public support for an extension of an expiring cut to the payroll tax — and against the Republican position that such an extension had to be paid for by spending cuts. But in that case, doing nothing was intolerable to most Republicans because it meant raising taxes.

That was even truer in December in the showdown over the “fiscal cliff,” when every tax cut signed by president George W Bush was set to expire. Republicans wanted to stop taxes from rising on anyone, but by refusing to let taxes rise on the wealthy, they would effectively allow taxes to rise on everyone. Again, inaction was unacceptable.

This time, Obama needs Republicans to affirmatively take action to raise taxes when inaction, to many members of Congress, is entirely preferable.

By allowing the across-the-board cuts to go into force, Republicans would be showing their voters they had done something tangible — and painful — to scale back the government, the primary reason that many Republicans ran for office. Federal spending subject to Congress’s annual discretion will drop to levels not seen since the 1950s, as measured against the size of the economy.

Yet if Boehner met Obama’s demands, he would be breaking promises he made to ardent conservatives in the House Republican Conference. “At this point, we continue to reach out to the Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy, and it’s not going to be good for ordinary people,” Obama said Thursday in one of three radio interviews he gave from the Oval Office.

“But I don’t know if they’re going to move, and that’s what we’re going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven, eight days.”

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