President Barack Obama startled Washington during Monday night's foreign policy debate when he said billions in automatic Pentagon cuts “will not happen" — a line that could weaken his bargaining power during an epic spending and tax fight expected when Congress returns.
Obama was responding to criticism from Republican rival Mitt Romney that American national security is at risk if the defense cuts are triggered in early January.
"First of all, the sequester is not something I proposed, it's something that Congress proposed," Obama said. "It will not happen."
The remark stakes new ground for the president, who has said he wants to avert the sequester cuts by taking a "balanced" approach to solving the budget debacle — meaning he will not sign off on a deal that cuts spending, but doesn't increase revenues. His strongest bargaining chip: the sequester cuts, which he may have just taken off the table.
After the debate, White House senior adviser David Plouffe toned down the president's remarks, saying that “everyone in Washington agrees that sequester ‘should not happen.’”
And Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod also took a less firm stance on sequester, telling CNN that a balanced deal is widely appealing: "There are plenty of people on both sides who want to get that done, and will get that done."
Republicans jumped at the news, too.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) said the president is "not a dictator yet," expressing surprise over the president's prediction during the debate that sequestration "will not happen."
"I was astonished, I almost fell out of my chair when the president said, 'Don't worry, sequestration won't happen.' We've been begging the president to sit down with us to avoid what his own secretary of defense said would be a devastating blow to our nati3onal security. He just said, 'Don't worry, sequestration won't happen.' He's not a dictator yet," McCain told POLITICO Live.
Other Republicans piled on as well with attacks about what they called wasted months in which Obama hasn’t negotiated with lawmakers over a way to avert sequestration.
"It is a nice line, but for more than a year the president hasn't lifted a finger to avert the crisis,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) “Instead, his policies and positions have increased uncertainty for our troops and the men and women who support them. The effects of sequestration can already be felt. Jobs have already been lost. The president and his party in the Senate have failed to offer even a single real solution that could resolve sequestration. If the president is determined that these cuts won't happen, why has he drug it out this long?”
Another top Republican hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), faulted the president for being late to the party.
“He’s using sequestration as a bargaining chip on the Bush tax cuts expiring. If he wanted it not to happen he should have been leading weeks ago, months ago. We’ve been begging him to come up with a presidential leadership,” Graham said. “Saying it’s not going to happen in a debate and not lifting a finger to prevent it for weeks and months is disingenuous. I think it’s going to happen unless there is some leadership and the president has done nothing to lead on this issue. Tonight he dismissed it with one statement. For months and weeks he’s done nothing to fix the problem. It’s going to happen in January and he’s the commander in chief.”
And Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner wondered whether Obama would follow up his statement with a proposal to solve the problem.
“If the sequester isn't going to happen, as he says, will the president finally offer a plan to solve the problem?” Smith said. “For the past year, the president has refused to show any leadership in resolving the sequester he proposed, so forgive us if we have doubts about his newfound desire to solve the problem."
A Romney campaign spokesman echoed that line. “The only people that have proposed a serious plan to stop sequestration have been the Republican house,” John Noonan said. “Sequestration was his idea, so it’s no surprise he’s not making an effort to stop it.”
Obama was responding to criticisms about reductions in the size of the Navy — but defense insiders’ interest was piqued about the president’s apparent declaration that the Pentagon’s budgets would be safe. The debate’s moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, did not press Obama on his statement. And although Romney later criticized sequestration again, he also did not respond to the president’s statement. But a top voice for the defense industry told POLITICO she hopes the administration doesn’t walk back from “will not” to should not.”
“I think the president declaring it will not happen is critical for the health of the country and our national security, I’m glad to see he’s recognizing that,” said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association. “What is concerning is that some of his advisers are saying, well, the thought was it should not happen. There’s a big difference between will and should.”
Blakey said it was too soon to tell whether Obama’s statement signaled an actual change of policy, but she said she hoped it did.
“As far as the health of the economy is concerned, [it’s good that he is] putting the power of his office behind overturning a law that should never have been put in place,” she said. “And let’s remember that it was both the administration and the Congress who signed off on this, but administration leadership is critical.”
Does Obama’s comment change the state of the sequestration debate, Blakey was asked.
“It does if the president meant what he said,” she said.
Meanwhile, many defense insiders responded cautiously to the president’s comments, uncertain as to whether Obama would fully walk back his declaration or how the statement could change the debate — and, they pointed out, Congress would still have to act when it returns in November.
“Whether sequestration happens or not is more a matter for Congress than the president at this point,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. “Congress passed the legislation containing the sequestration mechanism, and Congress will have to pass legislation undoing that provision in order to avoid it.”