WASHINGTON — The fallout from federal spending cuts over the coming weeks might alter the nation’s political landscape for years to come.
Already, a decade of budget deficits run up in war and economic crisis has saddled the government with a $16 trillion debt, a bill that will force the country to come to grips with how much government it wants and how much it wants to pay for it at the very time aging baby boomers put new strains on the budget through such vast programs as Medicare and Social Security.
Now the government is about to start cutting spending in some programs, offering a first look at how the American people will react.
If people feel the sting of the so-called sequestration with fewer teachers at their schools, more time in airport security lines and smaller checks for those without jobs, they might rise up and send a clear signal that the country really wants to keep all of the government it now gets and perhaps feed a demand that the government charge more in the form of higher taxes.
If, however, the majority of Americans don’t feel any pain from the cuts, if they either don’t see an impact or don’t empathize with federal employees enduring unpaid furloughs, they’d likely invite more moves to cut spending. That would bolster the Republicans.
Either way, it’s a high-stakes gamble for the two major parties, with the winner likely to dominate the debate and perhaps elections for years.
So far, Americans aren’t paying much attention. Just one in four were following the news closely last week, according to the Pew Research Center.
That amplifies the urgency for the parties to try to define the budget cuts on their terms. It also explains why President Barack Obama spent the last two weeks pushing the idea that the reductions are cruel and thoughtless. He needs people aware and angry to bolster his argument for more taxes and fewer spending cuts.
The $44 billion that’s being trimmed over the next seven months is a less than ideal test for either party.
Created by the Obama administration and Congress in 2011, sequestration was meant to be painful. They thought that the threat of automatic cuts would force them to find a better alternative. It didn’t.
Democrats insist on adding tax increases and leaving more spending untouched. Republicans want the same amount of spending cut, but would prefer it in different places.
Democrats are aware that their strategy has perils, chiefly that the reality won’t match the hype. “People will see long lines at airports, but they always think the lines are long,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.
Republicans also know that their tactics might backfire.
Pew found last month that 62 percent saw the party as out of touch with the American people, and 52 percent branded it as too extreme. Democrats had far lower numbers. And Obama has the bully pulpit: No Republican is as recognized, and no one Republican speaks for the party the way Obama speaks for the Democrats.
Somehow, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said, “we have to find ways to cut spending, but do it in a way that’s seen as reasonable.”
The parties do agree on one point: Both sides face the risk that their stubbornness will further alienate already-weary voters.
Voters have demonstrated their impatience in recent midterm elections. Democrats retook the majorities in Congress in 2006 and lost the House majority four years later. That suggests that swing voters don’t feel loyalty to either party, but instead are skeptical that either side knows what it’s doing. Now the stakes are even higher, because Washington’s decisions will be keenly felt — perhaps for years.
So under the bravado, politicians are nervous, knowing that their positions might cement their parties’ images in the public’s mind for years to come.
Be careful, Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a visit to Washington this week.
“Here we are in Washington, and we’re all obsessed with government,” he said. “But people back home are worried about what the economy is doing.”