Automatic Budget Cut Worries Get Political

Automatic Budget Cut Worries Get Political

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By Charles Ellison for the Philadelphia Tribune

Heading into 2014, Democrats had hoped that an anxious public – wary of Congressional antics in Washington – would place blame squarely on stubborn Republicans standing their ground on taxes and spending cuts. But, recent polls suggest emerging signs of slippage for Democrats and an increasingly embattled Obama White House coming off a short-lived re-election honeymoon.

Even as the GOP finds itself embroiled in internal squabbles and divisions over the future of its party – with elements of the conservative base threatening to bolt should Republican leadership decide an about face on anti-gay marriage stances – President Barack Obama’s lead on handling economic matters is losing ground. A recent CNN/ORC poll is giving Republicans a reason to gloat: 46 percent of Americans prefer GOP stewardship of the economy compared to now 47 percent for the president – a difference of only 1 percentage point. At one point earlier in the year, Obama managed a 15 percentage point spread over Republicans on the economy, 50 percent to 35 percent.

The Ides of March, however, may have reversed political fortunes a bit, with an annoyed public stung over sequestration. As the automatic federal spending cuts set in, White House officials figured all eyes would be on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his uncontrollable ship of mutinous Republicans looking to stick it to the president. But, a recently released Rasmussen Reports survey reveals a peculiarly large swath of the American electorate, 45 percent, feeling that the automatic cuts were not enough. Only 22 percent of likely voters, according to Rasmussen, “still think the sequester cut the projected growth in spending too much.”

Those views may have seemed like an anomaly, but the CNN/ORC poll is causing some grumblings on the left. Democrats find themselves caught between competing tensions, from Americans who are looking for someone to blame, to what some observers are describing as a “surprising” number of voters who believe the cuts didn’t go deep enough. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), a suburban Maryland member of Congress whose district relies heavily on federal employment and spending, is worried that many Americans don’t know “the full extent of what’s happening here.”  Edwards’ district spans Prince George’s County, a predominantly African-American enclave with a massive federal workforce already receiving furlough notices.

“People in this district understand how bad this is as they live from paycheck to paycheck and face the threat of being unable to pay bills and their mortgage,” says Edwards. “Furlough days add up. And there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand how much this negatively impacts the overall economy.” Edwards described one town hall where a constituent complained about the federal spending cuts not being deep enough, but was later surprised to find out about critical jobs in the district threatened by the cuts.

Across the Potomac in Virginia, a Quinnipiac poll shows Obama’s approval rating slipping below 50 percent for the first time since winning the state in 2012 for re-election. Old Dominion voters are growing ever more anxious, given that billions of federal dollars flowing into the Commonwealth’s economy are at stake. The largest U.S. naval base in the world is in Norfolk, Va., where cuts are already showing signs of strain on the local economy.

“We’ll watch to see if President Barack Obama’s job approval drop is a temporary blip or the beginning of something larger,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

“One thing that may be hurting the president’s approval rating is the implementation of automatic cuts in the federal budget from the sequester. Virginia voters are very unhappy about it taking effect. And some of that unhappiness may be rubbing off on the president.”

That is worrying Democrats in the state anticipating a cage match gubernatorial race in 2013 where the state’s notoriously conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinnelli hopes to cement Republican dominance in Richmond. Strategists on the left are hoping that Obama’s 2012 lock on the state could provide some lift for former party chair and Bill Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for the governor’s race. Current polls show Cuccinnelli and McAuliffe in a virtual tie.

What happens in Virginia in November offers a glimpse into Democrats’ fortunes for the Congressional midterms in 2014 and how they’ll perform in the battleground state come 2016. How sequestration impacts the Commonwealth, which is a stronghold of federal defense contractors, presents major political challenges over the next few years. But, Virginia-based Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee of Three Point Media doesn’t think it’s as bad as it seems.

“I don’t think Virginians are sour on the president.  I think they’re sour on Washington,” counters Elleithee. “There’s no question that sequestration is impacting Virginia more than almost any other state, given the state’s relationship with the federal government and the military.  Other polls I’ve seen have shown that while the president’s numbers may take a dip, there is an even bigger hit on Congressional approval ratings.”

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