WASHINGTON — As the nation’s top Democrat, President Barack Obama has a clear imperative: to ratchet up pressure on Republicans for across-the-board spending cuts by using the power of his office to dramatize the impact on families, businesses and the military.
But as president, Obama is charged with minimizing the damage from the spending reductions and must steer clear of talking down the economy. A sustained campaign against the cuts by the president could become what one former aide called “a self-fulfilling kind of mess.”
As a result, Obama is carefully navigating between maximizing heat on Republicans to undo the cuts while mobilizing efforts to make sure that the steep spending cuts do not hurt Americans. His advisers acknowledge the potential political perils ahead as the president struggles to find the right kind of balance.
At his first Cabinet meeting of his second term Monday, Obama called the cuts an “area of deep concern” that would slow the country’s growth, but promised to “manage through it” while pursuing a robust agenda. It was an echo of his formulations from the White House podium Friday, when he began to dial back the dire warnings about long lines at airports and furloughs of FBI agents, to name a couple, that he had made over the past several weeks.
“I’ve instructed not just my White House but every agency to make sure that regardless of some of the challenges that they may face because of sequestration, we’re not going to stop working on behalf of the American people,” Obama said, using the formal name for the spending cuts.
The president’s approach is unlikely to satisfy Obama’s most partisan backers, who view blaming Republicans for the deep spending cuts — especially in the military — as a tantalizing opportunity for political gain. And stepping back from a battle over the cuts could allow the significantly lower spending to become the “new normal” for the federal budget.
But a high-profile focus on the cuts in the months ahead is risky, too.
If severe economic pain ultimately fails to materialize, Obama could be blamed for hyping the situation, much like his Cabinet secretaries were in recent weeks. (Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, for example, was criticized for declaring the nation would be “less safe” because of furloughs of border patrol agents.)
Seeking short-term political gain with the spending cuts could also make more difficult the president’s hopes for a longer-term budget deal with Republicans on taxes and entitlement spending.
Obama’s team is keenly aware that the more he focuses on the cuts, the more he threatens to divert attention from his second-term priorities on guns, immigration and preschool.
“You can’t simply put them on hold and simply deal with this,” David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Obama, said in an interview.