Watching the newest budget crisis unfold is like watching two cars on a collision course. We can scream and wave our arms, but the drivers appear not to be looking at us.
The latest crisis is known by the term sequestration. It will bring about severe, automatic, across-the-board cuts in domestic and defense spending unless Congress and the president agree on an alternative by March 1. The cuts amount to about $83 billion.
The collision course metaphor is not precisely accurate, however. President Obama has offered up a compromise, steering his car away from the collision, but Republicans in Congress continue to reject compromise involving any form of tax increase, steering their car back into his path.
Obama is in a good position to paint Republicans as the destroyers of many things good. When Meals on Wheels are unable to roll, he can point out that the suffering of hungry seniors is a consequence of Republican budget cuts. When the armed forces are hobbled by the layoffs of civilian support personnel, voters will know it is Republican obstruction that prevented passage of a budget agreement. When kids’ Head Start programs are shut down, when National Parks are closed, when air traffic is slowed, Republicans are likely to get the blame.
Obama deserves some of the blame as well. These automatic cuts were the idea of his administration, which believed the cuts would present Congress with an alternative so nasty that members would be forced to come to a budget agreement. But it appears Republican hostility to government is so extreme, they would rather slash and burn essential programs than close loopholes benefiting wealthy Americans.
The political danger for Obama is that, even if Republicans cause an economic slowdown, voters will hold Obama responsible for the overall performance of the economy. It appears Republicans are practicing the policy they tried during Obama’s first term: wreck the economy so voters will blame the president. They are trying this even though the election results suggest voters have concluded it was the Republicans who brought us the recession and who tried to stand in the way of recovery.
Maybe there is a lesson to be learned by this crisis. If cuts hinder the government in carrying out vital work, then maybe it will become evident to the American people that the term “government spending” does not amount to dirty words. Government spending keeps the Vermont Air National Guard flying, keeps the Green Mountain National Forest protected, keeps meals rolling to house-bound seniors, keeps research under way into cancer and other illnesses, keeps money flowing to numerous agencies that protect the health and welfare of people across the country.
Government spending is also a huge segment of the economy. Central Vermont, where state government is the largest employer, depends on government spending. Central Vermont Medical Center, one of the largest employers, depends on government spending. Republicans-induced spending cuts promise to put a stick in the spokes of the economy, causing layoffs, slowing growth, and creating new demand for government services. It is the politics of destruction.
As this crisis approaches, Obama is said to be feeling confident that he has the American people on his side. His popularity is up and that of Congress is down. In the eyes of those who voted for him, his victory in November was a historic turning point, a rejection of the obstructionism of the Republicans and their reactionary anti-government program.
In the eyes of Obama’s opponents, however, the election appears not to matter. They seem to have concluded that they have no alternative but to follow their favored policies to their logical conclusions, which is to resist new taxes, even at the cost of ruining the economy.
Ultimately, the voters will be able to pass judgment on the outcome of this collision of wills. Depending on how things turn out, Obama may be seen as blinded by arrogance or he may demonstrate a new steadiness of nerve as he steers the nation through another manufactured crisis.
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