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It’s déjà vu all over again.
If this is America in the age of the Obama presidency, here we are at another point of political brinkmanship between the president and the Republicans in Congress.
This time it’s over the automatic governmental tripwire of federal budget cuts called the sequester. As this column is being written, no agreement has been yet brokered that would eliminate the sequester’s March 1 deadline for implementing $85 billion in spending reductions across such myriad federal agencies as the Department of Defense, Head Start, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even funds for airport security.
The entire amount of spending reductions would not have to be implemented immediately if the March 1 deadline for an agreement is missed. In fact, those cuts are slated to take effect in various federal agencies over the next nine years.
But there’s no question the start-up of the sequester would cause significant damage. For one thing, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned they will have to “place the vast majority of (the department’s) civilian work force on administrative furlough,” and other officials have said that such actions as furloughing some air traffic controllers and shrinking some early-childhood programs would have to be taken.
For another, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said that implementing the measures would reduce economic growth by 0.6 percent this year, enough to eliminate 750,000 jobs – developments the nation’s fragile economic recovery can hardly afford. Other analysts estimate the number of lost jobs at closer to 1 million.
But, albeit the disruption and economic hardship the cuts will cause immediately if they have to begin to be implemented, the sequester is only a pawn in the game the Republican Party has been playing since President Obama took office. That game has one goal: political chaos.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote last week that “time is what Washington is wasting on an utterly artificial crisis, driven not by economics but by ideology, partisan interest and an obsession over a word – ’sequester – that means nothing to most Americans …. Republicans are losing the argument but winning the time war.”
Numerous analyses have pointed out that Republicans have lost the argument over the need for the sequester – just as they lost the debate last year over whether President Obama deserved re-election. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last month and a Bloomberg National poll released last week found that the president’s favorability ratings are at or near three-year highs – while more and more Americans have unfavorable opinions about the GOP. In fact, the Bloomberg National poll found that just 35 percent of those surveyed had a favorable view of the Republicans – its lowest rating in the three years of the poll’s existence.
Their sinking poll numbers and Obama’s clear victory last November have driven the Republican Congressional leadership, captives of their extremist conservative base and haunted by the threat of primary challenges from the right in next year’s mid-term elections, to double down on trying to hold the federal government in a state of partisan paralysis.
In fact, as the demographic variety of the electoral coalition that returned President Obama to office underscored, the GOP has found itself at the dead-end of its four-decade-long “Southern Strategy” of using explicit and coded anti-Black appeals to craft its Whites-only electoral appeals.
That pitting Whites against Blacks worked for a while because there remained enough of a “residual” segment of White Americans clinging to anti-Black beliefs. But, during the last decade, as several groups that have become key factors in the nation’s electoral math – such as Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, and gays and lesbians who no longer have to hide their sexual preference, and whites who scorned appeals to bigotry – reached critical-mass status, the GOP revealed that its bigotry was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, all-inclusive.
And nothing they’ve done since their November “shellacking” by the president has given any indication they’ve shed their intent to be the “whites-only” party and surrendered their strategy of fomenting political chaos. As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote last week, “So once again the American people are caught in the middle of a game of chicken between Democrats, who rightly warn that the sky could fall, and Republicans, who want to burn the coop.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist who lives in New York.. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.