Democrats are going to have to do a better job of spelling out precisely what the consequences of the sequester would be, so the public understands precisely what Republicans are willing to allow happen in to force the spending cuts they want.
The White House is starting to do that today, circulating a fact sheet that lays out in specific terms exactly what the sequester would do. A few examples: 2,100 fewer food inspections could occur. Seventy thousand kids kicked off Head Start. Ten thousand teacher jobs put at risk. Hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill adults could go untreated. Over $500 million in cuts to small business loan guarantees. Cuts to unemployment benefits — further harming the economy — and child nutrition. Etc.
I must confess, this fans an anger that's been brewing in me -- and I take that anger as evidence of a weakness in the Dem position. Obama and the Dems co-negotiated the sequester. Say if you like that they never intended for it to go into effect -- but they put themselves in a position to let it happen. Put another way, Obama and Biden, through the deal they cut at year's end in a last-minute override of Harry Reid, have let the leverage they had on Dec. 31 be reversed. More broadly, Obama has put us in this position through his serial unwillingness to force a confrontation -- in December 2010, in August 2011, and in Dec/Jan 2011-12.
In each case, you could argue -- and the administration did argue -- that allowing a deadline to pass without a deal would have negative consequences for a vulnerable economy. If Obama was right about this in Dec. 2010, and in late July 2011 -- the latter is a big "if" -- then the time to pull the trigger at last was arguably at the fiscal cliff's edge -- because it wasn't really a cliff. It was a curb less steep than the current one. And Obama shunted Reid aside because Reid was not willing to cut a deal that did not postpone the sequester for a year.
So if the sequester is a disaster, it's on Obama. And because he is its co-author, the attempt to blame it on the Republicans is alloyed with co-responsibility. That was true to a degree at the fiscal cliff deadline, too. But because tax hikes are such anathema to Republicans, and the Bush tax cut sunset was their doing, the pressure on them was greater then than now. As we heard ad nauseam during the runup, once the sunset occurred, the roll-back of any part of the cuts would have been a tax cut rather than a hike.
In round after round of budget battles, no one could fairly make a final assessment, because each round begat the next. That remains true. But my sense now is that Obama missed his point of maximum leverage.
All of which is by way of seconding Sargent: stand firm, Dems. Let the sequester ax fall if necessary and fight out the blame game -- it remains true, as Sargent keeps reminding us, that as usual it's the Republicans alone who refuse to make any concessions to stave off disaster. If a deal is struck after the sequestration and continuing resolution deadlines pass (and assuming the debt ceiling also gets a clean short-term raise if all else is unsettled), the immediate effects can be mitigated and mostly rolled back once a deal is struck.