Two in three Americans say sequester will hurt economy

Roughly two out of three Americans say that automatic spending cuts set to trigger Friday will have a major negative effect on the economy, according to a new public opinion poll. And more would blame congressional Republicans (45 percent) than President Barack Obama (32 percent), the non-partisan Pew Research Center found in its survey.

But there are signs that Americans are growing tired with Washington’s seemingly boundless appetite for manufactured crises: Only 25 percent said they are following the news about the so-called sequestration cuts very closely. That’s down from 40 percent of respondents saying they were following the so-called fiscal cliff standoff in early December, weeks before a January 1 deadline.

With just days before the cuts start coming into force on Friday, Obama was taking the political fight Tuesday to the pivotal swing-state of Virginia. The president was to visit Newport News Shipbuilding, Virginia's largest manufacturing employer, as part of an aggressive public relations campaign to warn that the sequester will harm jobs.

The White House and its Republican opponents have stepped up their war of words over sequestration. The president describes the looming spending reductions as catastrophic (though independent analysts sharply question his rhetoric), while the GOP has alternately tried to blame him as the person who first proposed it (Congress voted to approve it) and played down the overall impact. The two sides are profoundly at odds with how to replace it – Obama wants a blend of spending cuts and tax hikes, Republican leaders have flatly rejected any tax increases. The public, meanwhile, basically backs the president but can't figure out what it wants to cut.

How bad would it be? Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats said sequestration would have a “major impact” on the economy. Sixty percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats said the same about the military. But just 28 percent of Republicans and 36 percent predicted a major impact on their household finances.

Sixty percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats said the impact on the economy would be “mostly negative.”

Who would be to blame?

Forty-five percent said Republicans in Congress, 32 percent pointed the finger at Obama, 13 percent said both. But among independent voters the gap narrows, with 39 percent blaming the GOP and 32 percent saying Obama’s at fault. That’s a shift from a week ago, when it was 47 percent GOP, 29 percent Obama.

Pew's poll, released late Monday, had error margins of 7.4 percentage points for Republicans, 6.7 percentage points for Democrats, 6.1 percentage points for independents, and 3.7 percentage points for the total sample.

The White House crafted the sequester during the summer 2011 battle over government spending that almost saw the country default on its debt payments for the first time in its history. The idea was to force a “supercommittee” of Democrats and Republicans to do what Congress as a whole had failed to do: find a compromise approach to reducing the government’s deficits and the national debt.

Force them how? By making it the law of the land that failure to find a compromise would automatically trigger utterly unacceptable cuts to domestic programs and defense—enough to reduce spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. (This works out to about $500 billion in cuts from each category, which will mean less borrowing, which in turn will mean about $200 billion less in interest payments.) Mandatory programs—Social Security, for instance—are either exempt from sequestration or, as in the case of Medicare, face a relatively modest 2 percent cut.

So is Obama to blame? Not really—or at least, not alone. The Congress, including Republican leaders now denouncing the sequester, passed it, and Obama signed it into law. And it wouldn’t have happened if the supercommittee had found a compromise. Among the major roadblocks: unyielding GOP opposition to raising tax revenue.

Wasn’t it supposed to start in January? As part of a New Year's compromise on the "fiscal cliff," Congress and the president basically gave themselves some breathing room by agreeing to some deficit reduction—enough to push the sequester’s trigger date to March 1.

Republicans working hard to ensure that Obama bears the lion’s share of the blame for the sequester note that the GOP-held House of Representatives twice passed legislation to replace the sequester. But those bills stalled in the Democrat-led Senate and died at the dawn of the new Congress in January. It’s not clear that the House could pass them again, and even if it could there’s no sign the legislation would advance in the Senate.

But some strategists on both sides say the cuts need to start happening, and the public needs to start feeling the impact, or Washington won’t act.

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