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Why Obama is on top in 'sequester' battle, but could lose long-term

President Obama is working hard to clarify how sequester spending cuts will hit Americans. But many don't understand what's happening and ultimately will look to Obama for solutions.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about the sequester as he stands with emergency responders, a group of workers the White House says could be affected if state and local governments lose federal money as a result of budget cuts.

There’s no question that President Obama is beating the Republicans in public opinion on the big federal spending cuts that, on paper, are expected to take effect on Friday.

Even Republicans concede that, for now, the president’s bully pulpit strategy on the “sequester” is working. He has been doing local media interviews, leaning on the governors, and holding campaign-style events around the country – including Tuesday’s visit to Newport News, Va. – to highlight cuts in defense spending. And his team is flooding the zone with data aimed at sowing concern about how the cuts would affect real people. On Sunday night, the White House released numbers on the sequester’s impact, state-by-state.

But the public isn’t paying much attention. Despite intensive media coverage, only 27 percent of Americans say they have heard a lot about the sequester, according to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. In addition, not surprisingly, most Americans don’t understand the sequester. When asked what it is, only 36 percent of Americans selected the right answer, a recent poll by The Hill newspaper found.

So in fact, Mr. Obama bears some risk – especially as time goes on.

“I think he wins short term, but danger mounts over time,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “There’s only one president, and he will be the focus of people’s attention if a satisfactory resolution is not eventually reached.”

Obama could in fact “win” the sequester battle for a couple of months, since the cuts will start to bite slowly. Very little will happen at the end of the week, when the deadline is reached. By March 27, when the next “fiscal cliff” deadline is reached – the end of federal budget spending authority and the possibility of a government shutdown – a sense of crisis could begin to build. And only then will the public look to Obama, as president, to solve the problem.

But doesn’t Obama risk looking as if he’s crying wolf? The White House is making dire predictions about cuts that take effect Friday, yet not much cutting will be in evidence.

“The president can easily argue that while nothing dramatic happened today, it will come in a matter of weeks, and you will see it and feel it,” says Mr. Jillson. “He can say bad things will happen because the Republicans are failing to meet him halfway.”

Another risk factor for Obama is the economy. For now, the recovery remains sluggish, unemployment is holding steady just below 8 percent, but the nation is not in recession (though preliminary numbers show the economy shrank slightly in the last quarter of 2012). One of Obama’s biggest policy weaknesses is his handling of the deficit. And according to the Pew poll, 70 percent of Americans think it is “essential” for him and Congress to pass major deficit-reduction legislation this year.

“Should the economy not improve, and the deficit numbers grow, it could be a problem for the president in the long term,” says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute.

But for now, Ms. Bowman says, Obama is beating the Republicans in the communications game.

“He’s out there with very specific answers,” she says. “It’s the only argument out there right now, it seems to me.”

Congressional Republicans were on recess all last week, but return Monday night, and will have a chance to play catchup with their message.

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