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The 'crying wolf' meme takes root

Last week, the consensus among many Beltway pundits was unavoidable: the failure to replace the sequester is a bipartisan fiasco, with President Obama
The 'crying wolf' meme takes root
The 'crying wolf' meme takes root

Last week, the consensus among many Beltway pundits was unavoidable: the failure to replace the sequester is a bipartisan fiasco, with President Obama ultimately bearing responsibility for Republicans' refusal to compromise.

This week, the Beltway conventional wisdom has a new meme, captured perfectly by the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza: "Did President Obama cry wolf on the sequester?"

In the days leading up to the March 1 sequester deadline, dire warnings about its impact were being issued daily from President Obama. Lines at airports would be interminable. First responders would be compromised. Things would be, in a word, bad.Then the sequester hit -- and (almost) no one noticed.... The sky is falling language seemed overblown, and the devastating consequences amounted to the suspension of public tours at the White House.

Cillizza quoted an unnamed Democratic strategist saying, "Obama cried wolf in the most shallow 'going through the motion of trying to meet with Congress' way possible." The same report quoted a Republican Senate staffer saying, "They just jumped the sharquester."

To be sure, Cillizza isn't the only one pushing the meme. Politico ran a similar report, and some congressional Republicans have issued "crying wolf" press releases this week.

There are at least three key problems with the argument. The first, and to me the most obvious, is that President Obama wasn't the only one warning about the policy. Congressional Republicans spent several weeks insisting that the sequestration cuts would be "dangerous," "devastating," and "harmful." Indeed, as many political reporters may have noticed, it's precisely why GOP leaders invested so much time and energy in trying to blame the White House -- remember the "Obamaquester" push that suddenly vanished? -- for cuts they assumed would be damaging.

The "did Obama cry wolf" question presupposes that the president was alone in warning of the negative consequences of sequestration. He wasn't.

Which leads to the more substantive second issue: what exactly did Obama say?

Jamelle Bouie had a good piece on this yesterday, documenting the president's sequestration warnings, most of which included specific phrases like "the impact of this policy won't be felt overnight," "a lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester," and "what's important to understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away."

The point, of course, is that the president didn't quite cry "wolf" at all. He, like Republicans, warned of negative consequences, but the Beltway meme suggests Obama predicted falling skies the day after the sequester deadline passed. That simply did not happen.

And third, can we maybe wait a couple of weeks before we draw conclusions about the severity of the policy? The sequester policy began six days ago. To ask the "did Obama cry wolf" question is to assume that nothing bad has happened, negating the predictions from February.

But the point, which the president emphasized before the deadline, is that most of us wouldn't see the effects right away. If you or someone close to you is one of the furloughed workers, the consequences are quite real. If you count on a public service that's suddenly been made more difficult, I'm sure the sequester isn't some far-off abstraction, even if you f eel invisible to the Beltway pundits.

But the national impact will take time. When the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the policy would cost us 750,000, that doesn't mean all at once. The losses will be spread out over time, dragging down the economy slowly and incrementally.

The policy has barely begun and will take its toll as the weeks and months progress. To ask whether the president exaggerated the threat is to misunderstand the nature of the threat itself.