President Obama’s assertion during the final debate that additional defense spending cuts “will not happen” prompted criticism and skepticism from Republicans who said on Tuesday that Obama’s confidence is not backed up by presidential leadership.
“If the sequester isn’t going to happen, as he says, will the president finally offer a plan to solve the problem?” Kevin Smith, a spokesman for speaker of the House John A. Boehner, said in an interview with Reuters. “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 tackle the issue.”
Obama’s unequivocal statement appeared bolder than anything he has said before, but his aides said the president was simply reiterating his long-held sentiment that Republicans and Democrats should compromise to avoid the cuts.
In the spin room after the debate, White House senior adviser David Plouffe told reporters that Obama’s point was that “everyone in Washington agrees that sequester should not happen.”
Senior campaign adviser David Axelrod told CNN that “there are plenty of people on both sides who want to get [a deal] done and will get that done.”
Obama made the remark in response to Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s suggestion that the president would allow additional cuts to bring total defense reductions to $1 trillion over 10 years.
“I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts,” Romney said. “That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure.”
“First of all, the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed,” Obama replied. “It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.”
At baseline, the Department of Defense will trim $487 billion over 10 years under the Budget Control Act, the debt ceiling compromise reached last summer. The act called for $2.1 trillion in total deficit reductions—domestic and military—between 2012 and 2021 but did not specify how $1.2 trillion of the total would be cut. A 12-member congressional “supercommittee” was tasked with determining where the unspecified cuts would come from.
As a fallback, lawmakers included in the Budget Control Act a list of default cuts, known as sequesters, to be implemented next year if the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement. The supercommittee did not reach an agreement, and the default cuts include another $500 billion from defense—bringing the 10-year defense total to roughly $1 trillion.
Sequestration is part of what lawmakers often refer to as the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of spending cuts and tax increases that will take effect next year, unless the two parties reach a deal, and which could push the country back into a recession. Both parties have said they want to avoid sequestration, but a deal is not expected before Election Day.
Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward reported in his recent book, “The Price of Politics,” that the idea for a large defense sequester originated in the White House, not in Congress. Obama believed the prospect of massive defense cuts would compel Republicans—many of whom have pledged not to raise taxes—to accept his “balanced approach” to deficit reduction, which includes a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.