obama debate

Obama: mixed messaging on sequester

My understanding of the word “debate” is that it refers to a situation where opposing individuals who disagreed with one another took up contrary positions and argued their side against the other. So maybe the better phrase for what happened last night would be something like “mutual admiration society.” But amid lines like “I agree with the President” and “thank you for agreeing with me,” with a few zingers splashed in to preserve the illusion of any level of difference between the two Presidential candidates on foreign policy issues, there was a bit of news, probably only noticed by Brian Beutler and myself.

It came during the run that would later launch a thousand memes, which are quickly becoming my least-favorite part of modern politics (Hey, look, I found a picture and placed white lettering on it! I’m politically active!). But the key phrase comes before President Obama taught Mitt Romney about how technology reduced the need for a larger head count of ships in the modern Navy. Obama originally responded to the defense sequester, the mandatory $492 billion in cuts to the military budget (alongside a similar cut to the discretionary budget) that will trigger in January if Congress fails to act. Here’s how the President responded.

First of all, the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.

OK, “it will not happen” is new. And this comes on the heels of the White House digging in and saying that the President would sign nothing related to the fiscal cliff unless the top two marginal tax rates increase back to Clinton-era levels. That would contradict the sureness of “it will not happen.”

The President has never embraced the sequester, particularly on the defense side. When he talks about the defense budget, and how Mitt Romney wants to increase it by $2 trillion (and this is about the only substantial point of difference between the candidates, they have the same foreign policy but Mitt Romney just wants to spend $2 trillion more on it), Obama says that from a baseline that does not include the sequester. He talks about $450 billion in “cuts” – last night he acknowledged that this would merely be reductions in the rate of growth of the military budget – without taking into account the $492 billion in sequester cuts. As far as Obama is concerned, the sequester doesn’t exist.

The problem is they do exist. I’m sure the President knows something I don’t, but you cannot confidently predict that the sequester will not happen and also threaten that it will if Republicans don’t agree to tax increases at the high end.

The easiest way to avert the sequester is to do what Nancy Pelosi has prescribed – take the revenue from the expiration of the Bush tax cuts over $250,000 and apply it to cover the sequester. This would almost do the trick, within about $150 billion over the ten-year period. But presumably Republicans would have something to say about that.

Anyway, this is something to file away, as I’m sure Republicans will, when they say that the President promised the sequester would not happen, and then it did.

UPDATE: Ben White of Politico:

A person close to the matter said Obama was not making any new policy and that the White House has never supported allowing the sequester to go into effect. This person told MM the president was simply trying to push back against Romney’s suggestion that the sequester spending cuts, especially on military spending, were designed and supported by the president.

More posturing than anything. But what’s the plan to replace the sequester?

Image by Fabola under Creative Commons license