If you weren’t watching Monday night’s presidential campaign debate in Boca Raton, Fla., you missed at least one jaw-dropping assertion. In a discussion of the “sequestration” spending cuts slated to slash defense and other budget items starting in January, President Obama declared that the sequester “will not happen.”
This definitive statement came as a shock to those of us who are concerned about how the sequester will affect our nation’s defense and security needs. We weren’t aware the president had a serious plan for averting these cuts, which virtually no one in Washington wants.
Moreover, it didn’t appear any negotiations with Congress had been taking place. As late as October 17, House Speaker John Boehner was telling reporters he hadn’t talked about sequestration or the looming “fiscal cliff” in four months.
So does the president’s stating that sequestration “will not happen” mean his administration has a grand, heretofore secret plan to avert the cuts? Of course not. Within minutes, his campaign team started walking back his remark.
According to news reports, the backtracking began almost immediately. Politico reported that the president’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, “toned down” Obama’s remark when speaking to reporters, correcting the president’s wording to say that sequestration “should not happen.”
There’s a world of difference between “will not happen” and “should not happen,” of course: the first is a forthright declaration of fact, while the second is merely a statement of preference. The verbal shift, when combined with the lack of communication with Congress on the issue, is telling—it suggests the Obama administration has no post-election plan for dealing with sequestration.
At Concerned Veterans for America, I’ve argued repeatedly in recent months that the defense budget is in serious need of smart reform to wring out inefficiencies, outdated programs, duplication and flat-out waste. We need to trim the fat without hitting the muscle. But the path of sequestration, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta likens to a “meat ax,” is the opposite of “smart reform.”
With $500 billion slated to come out of defense spending in the next decade, on top of previously scheduled cuts already planned by the Obama administration, we’re on track to see our force readiness and our ability to project power seriously compromised with no serious alternative vision for posture, strength, and spending reform proposed.
Those planned cuts are already having an effect. The Pentagon has warned that the services will likely see significant personnel drawdowns. Secretary Panetta warned earlier this year that the U.S. Marine Corps is projected to shrink by some 20,000 Marines, about 10 percent of the corps. Steel yourself for announcements of layoffs and “early outs” in the other service branches, as well.
By now, you might think the president and his team would recognize that the sequester will have a significant impact on our nation’s security. Their reliance on word games—“will not” versus “should not”—suggests they have done little serious thinking and have no plan for tackling the challenge of sequestration and the rest of the looming “fiscal cliff.”
The only other possible explanation for the President’s statement – other than a straight gaffe or the almost unconscionable thought that the comment was a throwaway line meant to deflect a difficult line of questioning – is that the President actually thinks we can solve all the problems this country has been wrestling with for a generation in thirty days.
Not only has the President not ended the “rise of the oceans” or the “warming of the planet" in his first four years, but he has yet to figure out "change the culture of Washington" or, more specifically, how to avert trillion dollar annual deficits. The fact is, avoiding sequestration will take more than 30 days and all the leadership any President can muster.
The problems and challenges this country faces are huge. Unless the Administration and Congress reverse course, end the parsing of “will” and “should,” and start talking now, the country is going to have to deal with the product of a hacked-together deal built in those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In concept, this would be almost as bad as letting the “meat axe” of sequestration fall – because if this mythical deal doesn’t go to work on the underlying causes that got us into this mess in the first place, the axe will eventually fall anyway.
One might think all sides know this by now. And one might hope our leaders in Washington would show the capacity to govern when faced with critical challenges; but on the question of sequestration, and reform in general, leadership is in short supply. That sad fact was clear from President Obama’s careless remark in Boca Raton.