Commentary: As the Sequester Looms, Obama Backpedals

In recent days, the White House has softened its message about the sequester while stopping short of making a complete about face.

Unless Congress intervenes with a plan to reduce spending, mandatory, across-the-board federal cuts go into effect beginning tomorrow. It's known around Washington as "the sequester," but if you've been listening to the White House in the weeks leading up to the deadline, it sounds more like "Doomsday."

Administration officials painted an alarming picture of harmful, automatic cuts that would threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and slash needed services for kids, the elderly, the disabled and the military. During a recent speech President Obama delivered at a State Governors' Meeting at the White House, he warned,"Companies are preparing layoff notices, families are preparing to cut back on expenses and the longer these cuts are in place, the bigger the impact will become."

And the impact on poor and minority communities has been emphasized as well. The automatic cuts would hit unemployment benefits and early child care programs which African-Americans disproportionately rely on. Subsequent federal and state job cuts would also strike a blow that the Black community would feel. 

In recent days, however, the White House has softened its message while stopping short of making a complete about face. President Obama told reporters Wednesday, "This is not a cliff but it is a tumble downward. It's conceivable that in the first week, first two weeks, first three weeks, the first month a lot of people may not notice the full impact, but this is going to be a big hit on the economy."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan sang from the same songbook Wednesday suggesting that it could be months before schools would feel the effects of the cuts. At the White House briefing, he urged, "The early childhood piece, the K-12 piece, the higher ed piece — those cuts are all cuts that would be hitting in the fall."

What happened to the shock and devastation that was supposed to ensue right away? Where is the hyperbole and saber-rattling that flooded the airwaves until now? Visions of starving children running the streets and military men and women without ammunition had, until this point, danced in some people's heads as the administration made the case for why Congress needed to act now.  

You're likely wondering, "Why the shift in tone? Why is it that the sky is apparently not going to fall after all?"

Conservatives believe that the president's warnings amounted to no more than hyped-up hysterics. But there may be a number of reasons why Obama changed his tune. Perhaps he was concerned that he had overplayed his hand in the hard press to put pressure on Congress. At the risk of appearing to be the boy who cried wolf, the administration cut off criticism at the pass by "clarifying" its message before the pending deadline arrived.

So it appears that the sky will not be falling tomorrow after all, or next week or next month for that matter. And whether we're facing a jump off of a cliff or simply a steady tumble downward, the end result is something that our lawmakers should work to avoid.  

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(Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

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