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Obama Claims Sequestration Cuts “Won’t Happen”

Perhaps the most surprising comment made during last night’s debate came when President Obama seemed to reach a conclusion that pretty much nobody else in Washington believes at the moment: 

In an early exchange during Monday night’s presidential debate about foreign policy, President Obama confidently predicted that across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending scheduled to kick in early next year won’t take effect.

“It will not happen,” Obama said about so-called “sequestration” — the automatic, arbitrary spending reductions Congress passed during the debt limit fight last summer.

Obama did not say how the cuts would be averted. He has stipulated in the past that he will veto legislation to undo or rollback sequestration unless it is replaced with a balanced plan to reduce deficits in a more targeted way. That caveat suggests sequestration will take effect unless Republicans agree to raise taxes on higher-income earners — either with an affirmative vote, or by allowing all of the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of the year.

It was a surprising comment to say the least considering the fact that negotiations toward any kind of a deal have essentially been delayed until after the election, and the prospects for a resolution during the lame-duck session that involves anything other than kicking the can down the road. Indeed, Obama’s rather emphatic statement last night would seem to have been a mistake to the extent that it leads Republicans to believe that they hold the upper hand in the negotiations, and that the President will end up accepting any deal that avoids the cuts in the end. The comments appear to have surprised Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate, largely because they don’t make sense in the context of current negotiations.

As for the cuts themselves, the Obama Administration has tried to blame the GOP for the fact that they were included in the budget deal, but a new book by Bob Woodward tells quite a different tale:

According to the book, excerpts of which were obtained by POLITICO ahead of the Sept. 11 release, President Barack Obama’s top deputies believed the prospect of massive defense cuts would compel Republicans to agree to a deficit-cutting grand bargain.

Then-OMB Director Jack Lew, now the White House chief of staff, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Woodward writes. Under the deal, which Republicans accepted after several rounds of bargaining, the federal debt ceiling was raised — staving off a potential financial crisis.

Called sequestration, the automatic budget cuts would reduce federal spending by roughly $1 trillion over the next decade, with half the savings taken from national security programs. Despite agreeing that sequestration is bad policy, since all accounts are reduced by an equal amount with no strategy, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach a deal to avert the cuts, which take effect Jan. 2.

Instead, the two sides have been locked in a vicious blame game.

“This book makes clear that the president put his own political interests ahead of our national security,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“House Republicans have passed a plan to protect our troops by replacing the sequester with common-sense spending cuts and reforms,” Smith told POLITICO. “It’s long past time for the president to show some leadership and present a concrete plan to do the same.”

The reality, of course, is that both sides agreed to these cuts because they believed, perhaps naively, that the much vaunted Supercommittee would be able to come up with an alternative plan before its November 2011 deadline expired. If that had happened, the cuts would have been zeroed out and replaced with a new budget package modeled on what the committee had come up with. That committee failed for a variety of reasons, many of them dealing with the fact that neither party was truly willing to deal with the non-defense budget items that matter the most in the budget debates, the so-called entitlements. Since the supercommittee failed, the sequestration cuts remain in place. That’s the deal these men and women agreed to, and that’s what they ought to accept.

More distressing, though, is the fact that the President seems to have joined the ranks of those who think the defense sequestration cuts are a bad idea because they will “gut” the military. Previously, he had made clear he would veto any bill that did this. This is a meme that was pushed since the very early days after the debt ceiling deal with completed, and Republican hawks quickly found an ally in their arguments against the cuts in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who asserted that the cuts would be devastating to the military. Soon, we saw Republicans in the House and the Senate, and a not insignificant number of Democrats from states with ties to the defense industry, calling for an end to the cuts. Earlier this year, House Republicans passing a bill gutting the defense cuts by replacing them with a series of cuts that would be politically unpalatable for most Democrats, and Mitt Romney has joined in by calling for the cuts to be delayed by at least a year.  The cuts have also played a significant role in the Presidential and Senate races here in Virginia, where Republicans are hitting both Obama and Democratic Senate nominee Tim Kaine quite hard on the issue, especially in the ads being run in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater region, both of which are heavily populated with active and retired military and people with ties to the defense industry.

It’s been more than a year since the budget deal with done, and almost a year now since the Supercommittee officially failed, and the opponents the defense sequestration cuts have yet to make their case that these cuts would have a significant impact on the nation’s defenses. Those who have tried to make the case,  such as Senator John McCain, have ended up resorting in nothing more than repeating unproven facts over and over again but their arguments end up coming off as absurd. Mainly, this is because we aren’t even talking about actual cuts in defense spending, we’re talking about are cuts in the rate of growth of spending. By the time we get to the end of the decade during which the cuts would be implemented, the Pentagon wouldn’t end up much worse off than it would have before the deal was made:

Rather than cutting $400 billion in defense spending through 2023, as President Barack Obama had proposed in April, the current debt proposal trims $350 billion through 2024, effectively giving the Pentagon $50 billion more than it had been expecting over the next decade.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, experts said, the overall change in defense spending practices could be minimal: Instead of cuts, the Pentagon merely could face slower growth.

“This is a good deal for defense when you probe under the numbers,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research center. “It’s better than what the Defense Department was expecting.”

 It’s worth noting that we are now spending more on defense than we have at any time since the end of World War II:

Adjusted for inflation, the United States spent at most $580 billion a year on defense at the height of the Cold War. In the 2011 fiscal year, the Pentagon’s baseline budget is $549 billion, with another $159 billion allotted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for a total of $708 billion. That total figure drops slightly to $670 billion in the 2012 budget proposal.

The suggestion that these cuts are going to harm our military readiness simply defies logic.  That, perhaps is why the opponents of the cuts have moved on to a new argument, specifically that cutting the defense budget even by this modest amount would cause people in the defense industry to be laid off. However, as I pointed out a few months back, the defense budget is not a jobs program and it is inappropriate to make decisions about federal spending at this level based on that criteria.  As I noted back in November, if we can’t afford to cut that, then we’re doing something wrong:

If we cannot afford to cut $50 billion a year from the defense budget then we will never get a handle on the exploding Federal Budget deficit, and the idea that the cuts that would have to be implemented would endanger America is the same kind of fearmongering we  hear every time one weapons system or another gets questioned.  You can be sure, for example, that the defense industry lobby has been whispering in the ears of Republicans all over Capitol Hill, because their chief concern isn’t what’s best for the United States, but what’s best for the defense industry.

Unfortunately, it seems as though that is the road we’re headed down.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    That’s the most surprising comment? Were you secretly watching the Giants game?

    Everyone knows sequestration won’t happen because a deal will be struck. That’s what he meant.

    None of the idiocy Mitt Romney sweated out last night is surprising, but a commonplace we already all know to be true is shocking?

    Uh huh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 4

  2. john personna says:

    Let’s say Doug and I are going to cut down a tree with a two man saw. It’s important to us both, but Doug has been coy about starting. I say “don’t worry, we’ll cut down the tree.”

    Now, what standing should Doug have to say “He’s lying!!!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. @michael reynolds:

    Who, exactly, is this everyone Michael?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  4. @john personna:

    I’m not saying Obama is lying. I think it’s more that he’s making a claim that he cannot support, largely because the sequestration cuts do seem to be having an impact on the polls in states like Virginia.

    Personally, I want to see all of the cuts go through.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  5. mantis says:

    Doug, you seem to forget Obama holds a very strong hand here. He can veto any proposal he doesn’t like, and if they can’t pass one that makes sense, then taxes go back up automatically, paying for the shortfall.

    So either Republicans agree to raise taxes on high incomes, letting those cuts expire while extending those on lower incomes (they can just pass the Senate bill if they want), or they let all of the tax cuts expire. Either way, the sequestration cuts as agreed to won’t happen.

    It’s not complicated, and if you truly believe that “nobody else in Washington believes” they will avoid those cuts, then I don’t believe you actually know anybody in Washington.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Looks as though Obama is bidding against himself. Not exactly a stellar negotiation strategy.

    That aside, Obama already has caved in each time this kerfuffle has come to a head. Even if he’s a lame duck next month presumably he’ll again cave in. Of course every Democrat House member has to stand for reelection every two years. Plenty of Dem Senators are up for reelection in 2014, including a number of vulnerable freshmen. Democrats are not politically dumb enough to want to be responsible for raising taxes on the middle class and they no longer possess the sort of brass cojones to call the GOP’s bluff. So unless Obama loses and decides to burn all bridges there will be a deal under which the “cuts” are averted, the Bush tax cuts are extended, and the can gets kicked down the road a bit further.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  7. mantis,

    He had that veto power in December 2010 when he let the Bush Tax Cuts get extended. Just sayin’

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. mantis says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    He had that veto power in December 2010 when he let the Bush Tax Cuts get extended. Just sayin’

    The economy was worse and he had to be re-elected then. If he is re-elected in two weeks, he will be under no such pressure.

    Plus, if tax rates for middle income earners go up in January, the outrage will be such that even Republicans in the House will fall in line. Mark my words.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. mantis says:

    @mantis:

    Sloppy writing. I didn’t meant to suggest Obama needed to win re-election in 2010, but rather he had to worry about re-election in 2012.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Crusty Dem says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    All of them? Care to hash that out a bit? As a scientist, I think 25% cuts to research grants might be a bad thing. I’d love to hear your carefully thought out reasoning on how I’m wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. J-Dub says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Things were pretty bleak at the time so the extension of the cuts made more sense then and he was able to get some things he wanted out of that deal as well, like the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell if I am remembering correctly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. J-Dub says:

    My hope is that President Obama puts forth a reasonable deal and calls the Republican’s bluff if they don’t agree to it. If that means all the tax cuts expire, so be it. The Republican’s will take the blame.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. john personna says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I think broadly the Republicans are playing that game though. They want to block Obama, and fault him for lack of progress. IOW, SOP

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Moderate Mom says:

    Sequestration isn’t just cuts to defense. It’s cuts to stuff the Democrats like too. Decisions, decisiions…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. C. Clavin says:

    If “A” happens…
    A bunch of Republicans have already said that an Obama win is a mandate for increased taxes on the wealthiest. Pushing the Bush tax cuts through for income under $250,000 is the second easiest way to avoid sequester.
    The easiest way to avoid sequestre is to just let the Bush Tax Cuts (in their entirety) to expire.
    If “B” happens…
    Romney wins and refuses to veto a bill that rolls back sequestration.
    This does not appear to be that complicated to me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @ Moderate Mom…
    Except the Democrats are not the ones welching on the deal. It’s the Republicans who cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith.
    You need to change your “handle”…or are you trying to be ironical?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    She’s a troll for the GOP. Probably a low level staffer somewhere. Probably a guy named Sterling or Tag.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  18. grumpy realist says:

    If I were King, I’d ramp up research in non-military stuff and cut the military budget by at least a third over the next five years. Research towards stuff like Alzheimer’s, better nanotechnology, carbon sequestration, anti-pollution….the list goes on and on.

    The military will always pout and cry when you take away their shiny toys, and the politicians in districts where military contractors are located scream even louder.

    Eisenhower was right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. jan says:

    @mantis:

    “The economy was worse and he had to be re-elected then.”

    The economy was bad in 2010, which was Obama’s reasoning (excuse) for fully extending the Bush tax cuts — “You don’t raise taxes when the economy is weak” kind of rhetoric. However, in 2012, the economy is worse than 2010, and somehow that same reasoning (excuse) doesn’t seem to apply, except for a certain class of people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 9

  20. David M says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but can’t sequestration be avoided several ways, one of which is increased revenue? I’m pretty sure that’s part of why a different deal will be reached by the beginning of 2013.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. john personna says:

    @jan:

    2010 was a classic pendulum swing. Obviously it has swung back, or Mitt would be killin’ it.

    I think the reversal is because the Tea Party was too much emotion and not enough reason. They did not have ideas which could stand. If they had ideas they would not be running on “No Obama.” Well, lately with “Almost Obma” spin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Jc says:

    Sequestration was the stupid result of a stupid argument. Just raise the debt ceiling for christ’s sake. Prez is right that it won’t happen, dumb to cut right now. So will he get his tax bump if he wins? That’s the question. I just can’t see GOP still taking the hard line if he wins. Or if he doesn’t win, prepare for Dems to dig their heels in against cuts. I think 4 more years is the best bet, if the Prez policies are horrible, then pass them and you will win in 2014 and 2016, if not, you lose, seems simple

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. jan says:

    @David M:

    “Correct me if I’m wrong, but can’t sequestration be avoided several ways, one of which is increased revenue? I’m pretty sure that’s part of why a different deal will be reached by the beginning of 2013. “

    Did you happen to catch the stock market today — down by 243? Why? Because the earnings reports were so terrible. Even if you sock it to the higher income people, I seriously doubt you will get anything but a superficial and temporary squeeze increasing revenue.

    Growing the economy (like Romney is emphasizing) is where you get more long term and robust earnings adding to revenue. Taking from high income earners/small & large business, though, who are already angry at Obama, don’t trust him and are squirreling away what they can, will do nothing but shrink the economy even more, and ultimately reduce revenues (and jobs).

    These defense cuts alone, effecting Virginia, are targeting several hundred thousand jobs. Consequently, I think that the bayonet comment will cost Obama votes in that state,and perhaps NH, where there is some ship building, given that he is so misinformed about the military, dealing with how on national defense, quantity matters too.

    That is in large part why the bipartisan Hadley-Perry Commission concluded in 2010 that the Navy should have 346 ships. Yet today it has only 282 ships–and falling. As former Navy Secretary (and Romney adviser) John Lehman noted in April: “The latest budget the administration has advanced proposes buying just 41 ships over five years. It is anything but certain that the administration’s budgets will sustain even that rate of only eight ships per year, but even if they do, the United States is headed for a Navy of 240-250 ships at best.”

    That is a looming strategic disaster–and one that no amount of quips about horses and bayonets can wish away. If we don’t build more ships, our global maritime dominance–the basic underpinning of the world’s strategic and economic stability–is in real danger of slipping away.

    As military analysts have asserted, Obama seemed to dismiss fleet strength, not taking into consideration that a third of any given fleet is being maintained, a third is coming in from deployment, and only a third remains to be ready to engage on the global common.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  24. @Doug Mataconis:

    Personally, I want to see all of the cuts go through.

    I want to see cuts happen, but Sequestration is a really stupid way of doing it. If you need to cut your household expenses 10%, you do it by making a list of expenses and eliminating the lowest priority items. You don’t just say, “we’re reducing everything by 10%!”, as though the mortgage payment is equivalent to money you spend on Starbucks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  25. David M says:

    @jan:

    Back in the real world, the Navy is staying around 300 ships, anyone saying otherwise is not telling the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Geek, Esq. says:

    Obama has learned from Romney–if an inconvenient fact is raised, just blithely say it’s not true or won’t happen, and that if it does it was never your idea to begin with.

    Unless it was something good (e.g. auto bailout) in which case you say it was your idea all along.

    File the sequester comment alongside the “my tax plan is revenue neutral” from Romney.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. jan says:

    @john personna:

    “2010 was a classic pendulum swing. Obviously it has swung back, or Mitt would be killin’ it.”

    I’ve never thought that 2012 would be another 2010. That’s a mid term and simply doesn’t carry the weight of a presidential election.

    “I think the reversal is because the Tea Party was too much emotion and not enough reason. They did not have ideas which could stand. If they had ideas they would not be running on “No Obama.” Well, lately with “Almost Obma” spin. “

    Underestimate the teas if you want. But, they are still out there with structure and conviction in place. There are no more rallies. But, what is taking place is far more subtle, and they will be a sizable component of the GOP GOTV on election day.

    As far as Obama is concerned, he is a political animal who is extremely competitive. He is now in the hunt, with the election perimeters tightening, and what was once considered a cake-walk is now a struggle. He will do anything to be reelected. So, I watch for a ‘wag the tail,’ or something else that can be an attention-grabbing scenario, to unfold, if that is what it takes.

    Of course, unlike you, I am placing my chips on Romney, as I truly believe he has more to offer in taking us out of this mess. I mean, just having Obama finally putting out his pamphlet, 3+ million of them, containing his next 4-year plan, two weeks before the election, is simply incredible!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  28. jan says:

    @David M:

    “Back in the real world, the Navy is staying around 300 ships, anyone saying otherwise is not telling the truth.”

    That’s what the president says he wants. But, in the real world, according to the excerpt I posted, and other analysts count, we currently have 282 ships, and are headed to a 240-250 count. I’m relying on what Navy experts are saying as true, and not what you randomly believe is the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  29. David M says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    File the sequester comment alongside the “my tax plan is revenue neutral” from Romney.

    I don’t think that’s exactly right. Romney’s tax plan will never be revenue neutral, but it’s very likely an agreement will be reached to avoid the sequester.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  30. Geek, Esq. says:

    @David M:

    The distinction is one of probabilities–the sequester probably won’t go through, just like Romney’s tax plan probably wouldn’t get enacted anywhere close to what he’s proposing.

    But, candidates can say “it won’t happen–you can’t prove otherwise” and fact-checkers have to suck it up.

    Especially in the last debate, with no prospect of really getting called on it in the future.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. David M says:

    @jan:

    according to the excerpt I posted, and other analysts count, we currently have 282 ships, and are headed to a 240-250 count. I’m relying on what Navy experts [the right wing nutjobs at Commentary] are saying as true

    We currently are targeting a 300 ship Navy. And you don’t have to take my word for it, you can check with the Congressional Research Service or Defense News.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. David M says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    The distinction is one of probabilities–the sequester probably won’t go through, just like Romney’s tax plan probably wouldn’t get enacted anywhere close to what he’s proposing.

    You’re missing the point. Romney’s tax plant is not revenue neutral while it is possible to avoid the sequester. Romeny is claiming he’s going to work 50 hours in a day and Obama is claiming he’ll work 14. Maybe 14 is a long day but it’s not more hours than there are in a day.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. C. Clavin says:

    Jan…
    There was no Coast Guard or Air Force in 1917.
    Should we eliminate them because you now fetishize 1917 and see that as the Gold Standard of defense???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  34. mantis says:

    @jan:

    However, in 2012, the economy is worse than 2010

    That is false.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  35. jukeboxgrad says:

    doug:

    Obama seemed to reach a conclusion that pretty much nobody else in Washington believes at the moment

    You must mean no one else but Mitt. No one seems to have noticed that Ryan promised they would “retroactively prevent that sequester from taking place in January,” if they are elected (link).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. Moderate Mom says:

    @michael reynolds: Drat! You’re on to me. ;-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Rob in CT says:

    I think Obama is likely to be correct, whether he wins reelection or not.

    The question is what deal will be done to avert sequestration? The GOP wants out of the military cuts, the Dems want to reduce other cuts and want revenue. Neither side actually wants sequestration. It was a last-minute bullshit “solution” to the problem created by the GOP playing chicken with the debt ceiling.

    Likewise, the scheduled expiration of the income tax cuts. Unlikey to actually happen as planned. IFthe GOP makes gains in the election (takes the WH, gets the Senate), no chance in hell they expire. If the Dems hold serve, then it’s a battle over which parts to extend and which to let expire. But again, neither side actually wants to allow “present law” to stand.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    Good catch. I don’t always read Jan that closely. The interesting thing about this:

    However, in 2012, the economy is worse than 2010

    is the nature of the error. It’s a fundamental economic illiteracy. Ryan used it when he said “the nation is going in the wrong direction” on jobs. It’s going in the right direction, just not fast enough.

    “faster” is a rational goal. But to say “it’s worse?” That’s to say you don’t know what the hell is going on.

    And yet Ryan’s message was well-received by Jan. Economic illiteracy sells within the tribe. That is really sad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  39. john personna says:

    @jan:

    Can you read this chart?

    State of the Economy

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. NickTamere says:

    So, I watch for a ‘wag the tail

    heh

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. Nick says:

    It’s hard to believe that the debt ceiling debacle and sequestration aren’t related to the House Class of ’10. Wasn’t all the chatter from them at the time that they were “different” and “principled”–they didn’t want to bring back Federal money to their districts, the debt requires everyone to bite the bullet, and so forth.

    Now that those same people’s jobs are on the line (GOP defense industry workers), they’re crying about it.

    But again, this blog is great because the commenters are by and large smarter and more well-informed than the blogger! I love it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0