The arbitrary and automatic $85 billion dollar cuts, known as the “sequester” will begin later Friday, in a self-inflicted wound brought about by deep ideological polarization between the president and his foes in Congress.
“I am not a dictator. I’m the president,” Obama said, warning he could not force his Republican foes to “do the right thing”, which he sees as raising revenues to combine with targeted spending cuts in a deal to cut the deficit.
“These cuts will hurt our economy, will cost us jobs and to set it right both sides need to be able to compromise,” Obama said.
Appearing irritated after meeting top congressional leaders including Republican House speaker John Boehner and top Republican Mitch McConnell, Obama denied blame in the showdown.
“If Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway, right?” he said, when asked why talks on averting sequestration had broken up.
“I’m presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right?”
Boehner emerged from the talks with the president to tersely signal to reporters that Republicans would not budge on Obama’s key demand for a deal which be partly based on raising extra tax revenues.
“Let’s make it clear that the president got his tax hikes on January 1. This discussion about revenue in my view is over,” Boehner said, alluding to the outcome of the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ showdown late last year.
“It is about taking on the spending problem in Washington.”
Obama was bound by law to initiate the automatic, indiscriminate cuts, which could wound the already fragile economy, cost a million jobs and harm military readiness, by 11.59 pm in the absence of an deficit cutting agreement.
The hit to military and domestic spending was never supposed to happen, but was rather a device seen as so punishing that rival lawmakers would be forced to find a better compromise to cut the deficit.
But such is the dysfunction in gridlocked Washington that neither side tried very hard to get a deal.
The drama instead evolved into the latest philosophical standoff over the size, role and financing of government between Obama, who won re-election vowing to protect the middle class, and fiscally conservative Republicans.
Obama, in effect extending the campaign that won him re-election in November, has mounted a fierce public relations offensive designed to maximize his leverage by pouring blame on Republicans for the cuts.
He acknowledged Friday that the impact of the cuts would not be immediate, but would nevertheless hurt middle class Americans in a “slow grind” squeeze which he said could cost more than half a point of economic growth.
“So every time that we get a piece of economic news over the next month, next two months, next six months, as long as the sequester’s in place, we’ll know that that economic news could have been better if Congress had not failed to act.”
Republicans accuse Obama of inflating the impact of the sequester and of using scare tactics, and believe he has painted himself into a political corner.
Although the cuts trim significant amounts from domestic and defense spending, they do not touch entitlements — social programs like Medicare health care for the elderly and pension schemes.
Many budget experts believe that only cuts to those programs will be able to restore the prospect of long-term fiscal stability.
Obama says he is ready to make painful choices on such funding, but says he will not allow Republicans to preserve tax breaks for the rich and saddle the most needy with the bill for tackling the deficit.
Republicans simply say that Obama is not serious about cutting spending, and is unwilling to take on his own party, which views entitlement programs as an almost sacred trust.
The White House warns that the indiscriminate cuts are written into law in such a way that their impact cannot be alleviated.
It says 800,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department will go on a mandatory furlough one day a week and the navy will trim voyages. The deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf has been canceled.
About 70,000 children less than five years old will be cut from the Head Start preschool program, resulting in the elimination of 14,000 teaching positions. Services for special needs kids will also take a hit.
Authorities warn that average wait times for passengers at US immigration will increase by 30-50 percent and may exceed four hours during peak times.