Obama Didn't Cry Wolf on the Sequester


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks with Chief of Staff Jack Lew, center, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they walk on the Colonnade of the White House, Jan. 10, 2013.

Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza chides President Obama for "crying wolf" on sequestration:

In the days leading up to the March 1 sequester deadline, dire warnings about its impact were being issued daily from President Obama. Lines at airports would be interminable. First responders would be compromised. Things would be, in a word, bad.

Then the sequester hit — and (almost) no one noticed. (Sidebar: It’s kind of like the “snow” storm currently “hitting” D.C.; lots of advance warning, very little immediate impact.) The sky is falling language seemed overblown, and the devastating consequences amounted to the suspension of public tours at the White House. Obama hasn’t helped himself post-sequester — landing in a bit of political hot water with a mistaken claim about what the sequester would do to janitors on Capitol Hill.

There's no doubt the White House indulged in hyperbole during the debate over sequestration. But Cillizza is exaggerating the degree to which Obama's rhetoric was overheated or overhyped. Here, for example, is a portion of the February 26th speech he gave in Newport News, Virginia on the impact of the sequester:

In a few days, Congress might allow a series of immediate, painful, arbitrary budget cuts to take place known in Washington as the sequester. Now, that's a pretty bad name sequester. But the effects are even worse than the name. Instead of cutting out the government spending we don’t need wasteful programs that don't work, special interest tax loopholes and tax breaks what the sequester does is it uses a meat cleaver approach to gut critical investments in things like education and national security and lifesaving medical research.

And the impact of this policy won’t be felt overnight, but it will be real. The sequester will weaken America’s economic recovery. It will weaken our military readiness. And it will weaken the basic services that the American people depend on every single day. [Emphasis added]

The next day, he made additional remarks on the sequester at the Business Council dinner in Washington D.C:

Now, I should point out and I'm sure you've heard from a number of experts and economists that this is not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward. It's conceivable that in the first week, the first two weeks, the first three weeks, the first month that unless your business is directly related to the Defense Department, unless you live in a town that is directly impacted by a military installation, unless you're a family that now is trying to figure out where to keep your kids during the day because you just lost a Head Start slot a lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester. [Emphasis added}

As far as messages go, this is straightforward—for the families and communities most dependent on federal dollars, the sequester might have an immediate affect. For most other people, it won't. Cillizza says that Obama's post-sequester rhetoric has taken a turn away from the alarmist, but as far as I can tell, it's about the same. Here is what he said during his widely-covered March 1st press conference:

Now, what’s important to understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away. The pain, though, will be real. Beginning this week, many middle-class families will have their lives disrupted in significant ways. Businesses that work with the military, like the Virginia shipbuilder that I visited on Tuesday, may have to lay folks off. Communities near military bases will take a serious blow. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who serve their country Border Patrol agents, FBI agents, civilians who work at the Pentagon all will suffer significant pay cuts and furloughs.

He goes on to emphasize the extent to which sequestration is a process that will harm Americans over time. The janitor quote—for which Obama was rightly criticized—comes much later in the press conference, in response to a question over whether Obama is overstating the impact of said cuts. The very next day, in his weekly address, President Obama makes the same point—sequester cuts will roll out over time:

Now, it’s important to understand that, while not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away, the pain will be real. Many middle-class families will have their lives disrupted in a significant way.

Beginning this week, businesses that work with the military will have to lay folks off. Communities near military bases will take a serious blow. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who serve their country – Border Patrol agents, FBI agents, civilians who work for the Defense Department – will see their wages cut and their hours reduced. [Emphasis added]

This isn't an exaggeration. Sequester furloughs have already begun for some federal workers, and communities that rely on military bases and federal spending—like the Hampton Roads area of eastern Virginia—will see real hardship. Over time, if sequestration is allowed to run its course, more and more Americans will feel the consequences of sudden austerity.

Private forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers estimates "sequestration would cost roughly 700,000 jobs (including reductions in armed forces)," while Moody's Analytics predicts a hit to real gross domestic product of 0.5 percent, just a hair below Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's prediction 0.6 percent fiscal drag.

Did Obama cry wolf on the sequester? No. And besides, it's only been five days. We'll see the effects of sequestration as time passes, and they won't be good.