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February 27, 2013

Americans not paying as close attention in days leading up to sequester

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama is pulling out all the stops to warn just what could happen if automatic budget cuts kick in. Americans are reacting with a collective yawn.

They know the shtick: Obama raises the alarm, Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of holding a deal hostage, there’s a lot of yelling on cable news, and then finally, when everyone has made their points, a deal is struck and the day is saved.

Maybe not this time. Two days before $85 billion in cuts are set to hit federal programs with all the precision of a wrecking ball, there are no signs that the White House and Republicans in Congress are even negotiating. Both sides appear quietly resigned to the prospect that this is one bullet we just may not dodge.

Still, for all the grim predictions, Americans seem to be flipping the channel to something a little less, well, boring. They wonder, haven’t we been here before?

It’s like deja vu, says Patrick Naylon, who runs an audiovisual firm in San Francisco: “The same stuff, over and over again.”

Texas native Corby Biddle, 53, isn’t losing sleep over the cuts. No way the government will let vital services collapse, he said as he visited tourist attractions this week in downtown Atlanta.

“It will get resolved. They will kick the can down the road,” Biddle said.

Usually, that’s exactly what happens. Even the cuts behind the current panic were originally supposed to kick in on Jan. 1 — part of the fiscal-cliff combo of spending cuts and tax hikes that economists warned could nudge the nation back into recession.

Even if the current cuts go through, the impact won’t be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day every week off without pay, but the furloughs won’t start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.

For all the high drama, lawmakers finally acted on New Year’s Day, compromising on taxes and punting the spending cuts to March 1.

And the blunt instrument known as the “sequester” that’s set to deliver the cuts? That too was the progeny of another moment of government-by-brinksmanship, a concession that in 2011 made possible the grand bargain that saved the U.S. from a first-ever default on its debt.

But you can only cry wolf so many times before people just stop paying attention.

“I know you guys must get tired of it,” Obama told a crowd in Virginia on Tuesday. “Didn’t we just solve this thing? Now we’ve got another thing coming up?”

Three out of 4 Americans say they aren’t following the spending cuts issue very closely, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week. It’s a significant drop from the nearly 4 in 10 who in December said they were closely following the fiscal-cliff debate.

Public data from Google’s search engine shows that at its peak in December, the search term “fiscal cliff” was about 10 times as popular as “sequestration” has been in recent days. Even “debt ceiling,” not a huge thriller for the web-surfing crowd, maxed out in July 2011 at about three times the searches the sequester is now getting.

“We’re now approaching the next alleged deadline of doom. And voters, having been told previously that the world might end, found it did not in the past and are becoming more skeptical that it will in the future,” said Peter Brown of the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

And let’s face it: When it comes to policy issues that can really put an audience to sleep, “sequestration” is right up there with filibuster reform, chained CPI and carried interest.

For all the angst about layoffs, furloughs and slashes to government contracts, the markets don’t seem to be rattled, either. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, after falling below 13,000 at the height of the fiscal cliff debacle, has been buoyant ever since, spending the last month hovering just below 14,000.

“I shrug my shoulders because I don’t believe any of those severe cuts will go through,” said Karen Jensen, a retired hospital administrator who stopped to talk in New York’s Times Square. “Life goes on as it has before.”

But if the Obama administration hasn’t managed to convince Americans these spending cuts could be the real deal, it’s not for lack of trying.

Each day the cuts grow nearer sees a new dire warning from the White House about another government function that will take a hit if they go into effect — what White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has called a “devastating list of horribles.” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned Monday that her agency will be forced to furlough 5,000 border patrol agents. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said 70,000 preschool kids could be removed from Head Start. Fewer air traffic controllers could mean 90-minute delays or longer in major cities, and visiting hours at all 398 national parks are likely to be cut, the administration has said.

The White House has circulated 51 reports — one for each state, plus the District of Columbia — localizing the effects of the cuts. On Tuesday, Obama took his cautionary tale to a shipbuilding site in Newport News, Va., calling attention to how the cuts could impede the military. The White House says in Virginia alone, about 90,000 civilians working for the Defense Department would be furloughed, for a nearly $650 million reduction in gross pay.

“The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people, stop trying to scare the states,” Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Monday after governors from both parties met with Obama behind closed doors. “Now’s the time to cut spending. It can be done without jeopardizing the economy. It can be done without jeopardizing critical services.”

The age-old Republican desire for a scaled-back federal government makes it clear why, on the one hand, the GOP isn’t scrambling to avert the cuts — especially when Obama insists on more tax revenues in any deal to turn them off. On the other hand, Obama is banking on polls that show if the cuts go through, Republicans are likely to bear most of the blame.

Both parties agree that if you’re going to cut spending, an indiscriminate mechanism like the sequester is the wrong way to do it. After all, the whole point of the endeavor was to set in motion ramifications so unbearable that lawmakers would be forced to come together and hash out a better plan before the deadline.

Count James Ford of Louisville, Ky., among those still holding out hope.

“They’ll come up with something to keep the thing going,” he said. “They always do.”

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