Why most Americans are yawning over 'sequester' – and why that matters

Only 1 in 4 Americans is following the debate over 'the sequester,' and even fewer say they understand it, a new poll shows. If the spending cuts take effect and more people pay attention, Obama's public support could slip.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama runs to greet well-wishers upon his arrival in Newport News, Va., on Tuesday. Obama is visiting Newport News Shipbuilding to highlight the effect the 'sequester' will have on jobs and middle-class families.

President Obama is working hard to ramp up public agitation over the looming “sequester” – big, across-the-board spending cuts that, if fully implemented, could send the US economy back into recession. If the sequester goes into effect and starts doing damage, blame the Republicans, Mr. Obama says.

On Tuesday, the president holds his latest campaign-style event focused on what the cuts would mean for real people. Obama is speaking at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., a coastal city whose economic health depends on Navy contracts.   

Workers in Newport News are understandably anxious. But to much of the country, “sequester” is just a weird word that doesn’t mean much or affect them personally. Only 1 in 4 Americans is following the debate over the $85 billion in federal spending cuts scheduled to kick in on Friday, according to a new poll by the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center. Even fewer people – 18 percent – say they understand the issue “very well.”

Part of the problem could be the lexicon. Who knows what “sequester” means? That, despite valiant efforts by the media to explain it. It’s actually a verb that means to isolate or cut. The noun form is “sequestration,” but that’s even more awkward (an extra syllable, after all) and hardly fodder for water-cooler chat – unless, of course, it’s your job that’s possibly on the line, in which case you are keenly interested.

But unless you work in certain industries – such as defense, which is slated to take half of the cuts – it’s just the latest food fight in the dysfunction known as Washington politics. Fiscal crisis fatigue among the public appears to have set in. Just two months ago, Washington was on the edge of its seat over the “fiscal cliff,” the tax increases and spending cuts due to take effect on Jan. 1 as required by law, and aimed at setting the nation on a sounder fiscal path.

The sequester was due to take effect then, but in the last-minute agreement was delayed until March 1.   

Now the White House and congressional Republicans are at each other’s throats again, and without any clear reason for most Americans to care, many simply don’t – at least not yet.

The proof is in the numbers: In the run-up to the “cliff,” 40 percent of Americans told Pew that they were following the situation “very closely," 15 percentage points fewer than today’s figure, the Post notes. And 3 in 10 said they understood the implications of going off the cliff.

Part of the issue of public attention could be that the Washington players involved in sorting this out – the White House and congressional Republicans – have not begun to negotiate yet. They are both playing a PR blame game, trying to win over public opinion before they (sooner or later) sit down and try to hash something out.

Another reason, the Post suggests, is that “without tax increases included in the sequester, most people don’t think it will really affect them.”

In the new poll, only 30 percent said “automatic federal spending cuts” would have a “major effect” on their personal finances. During the fiscal cliff drama, 43 percent said they would be affected if the nation had gone over the cliff. 

In the current drama, a much larger slice of the public – 60 percent – said the March 1 cuts would have a “major effect” on the US economy. So most Americans know something big is going on, but many just aren’t quite sure what it is.

The poll also confirms previous reporting that more Americans would blame congressional Republicans (45 percent) than Obama (32 percent) if the sequester goes into effect. Still, Obama’s advantage on that question has declined in the past month, and it’s a smaller advantage than he had over the fiscal cliff.

But the biggest question for Obama is, what happens when and if the public does tune in in a big way? If the sequester starts to bite – if layoffs and furloughs begin – and the public gets nervous, will Obama still be able to deflect blame to the Republicans?

Obama’s PR strategy is working for now, “because of widespread public ignorance; people don’t watch politics closely enough,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

But if people’s attention widens, Obama’s edge could evaporate. “Their support for him is as thin as their knowledge,” Mr. Jillson says.

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