“Tonight, (President Obama) even criticized us for refusing to raise taxes to delay military cuts – cuts that were his idea in the first place.”
–Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), from the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Sen. Rubio correctly states that the sequester plan came from President Obama and the White House, but his words may leave the impression that the administration favors the sequestration option. Sequestration’s role in the original plan was to encourage a deal more acceptable to Democrats and Republicans. Rubio’s comment fits contextually with the Republican position that Democrats are failing to make their own concrete proposals for resolving the problem.
Journalist Bob Woodward reported in his book “Price of Politics” that the Obama Administration developed the sequester proposal to force progress on negotiations on the debt ceiling in 2011.
The across-the-board budget sequestration was presented as a poison pill so unacceptable that Democrats nor Republicans would allow it to trigger. The threat of sequestration was supposed to make sure that a bipartisan super committee would reach an alternative agreement.
That agreement failed to occur, though Congress has found ways to delay sequestration in hopes of agreeing on an alternative.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
Rubio’s State of the Union response speech falls in line with a recent Republican strategy emphasizing Obama’s responsibility for the threat of sequestration. The strategy minimizes Republicans’ role in voting for the debt ceiling deal in sufficient numbers to make the threat of sequestration a possibility.
On the bare facts, Rubio is correct that the idea from the deal came from the Obama administration. Majorities of Republicans in both houses of Congress voted in favor of the measure. Democrats split evenly in the House but a majority supported it in the Senate. Republican responsibility doesn’t change simply because the idea originated with the White House.
But there’s more to it.
The context suggests that Rubio was not merely trying to shift blame. His statement came in the midst of a string of examples where Obama “and his allies” supposedly often engage in personal attacks against those who oppose his agenda.
Here’s what Obama said:
In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, and energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.
Now, some in Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse.
If education, job training and social programs aren’t on the table then what is left to address the budget deficit? Taxes? Rubio’s inference that Obama wants tax hikes seems correct.
We think it misses the point to fact check Rubio as though he is simply trying to attach blame to Obama for the sequester. We do think Rubio’s statement easily comes across that way, however, so it does encourage a fallacy of ambiguity.
To understand what’s happening politically on the sequester, it helps to contrast Obama’s SOTU statement on the defense sequester with remarks Rep. Paul Ryan made on CBS the day after the SOTU speech.
Ryan said the sequester, which would go into effect next month, is likely, “because the president hasn’t put a budget on the table. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in four years … Don’t forget that it’s the president who first proposed the sequester and it’s the president who designed the sequester as it is now designed.”
“We have acted in the House. The president has not. The Senate has not and therefore … I think it’s going to happen.”
The sequestration of defense spending, as we note above, was supposed to motivate Congress to make a compromise avoiding its unacceptable consequences. The Republicans are saying they’re putting forth ideas to find that compromise while the president and the Senate have remained passive. Pointing this out encourages the inference that the passive attitude of the Democratic Party shows that the sequester is an acceptable outcome if Republicans do not give in to their demands. In other words, the powerful motivation represented by the sequester does not so far appear to motivate the Democrats to action in 2013.
In the president’s State of the Union speech he did not suggest a compromise position on the sequester. He simply criticized the Republican plan as though the threat of the sequester is intended to get just one side to compromise.
Given a small measure of charitable interpretation, Rubio has a point.
In the immediate context of Rubio’s remarks, he was talking about the tendency of the president to attack those who disagree with his policies. The president’s speech attacked the Republicans’ proposed resolution to the threat of sequestration rather than attacking Republicans personally, but Rubio’s charge otherwise fits in his immediate context and as well applies to the broader context of the negotiations over the budget.
“cuts that were his idea in the first place.”
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