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Controlling the message: Why Obama has the PR upper hand in sequestration battle

Updated 9:30am ET As head of the executive branch, and as the man who dominates media coverage, President Barack Obama has a strong and unique advantage over his Republican foes: he's got the power to control both the practical details and the theatrics of the ongoing sequestration debate.
He can design the spectacle in a way that could inflict political embarrassment and damage on Republicans, with the goal being to pressure them to agree to another round of tax increases.
As part of his crusade to pressure the Republicans and to blame them for the economic damage that the spending cuts would inflict, Obama will visit a major defense contractor next Tuesday, Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

The House member representing Newport News, Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, said Thursday, "I knew over 17 months ago how devastating sequestration would be to our nation and our region. When it came for a vote, I voted no. The President, on the other hand, signed sequestration into law." Forbes said he hoped Obama would work “to overturn the bill that he signed into law.”

The tax hikes Obama is seeking would be part of a deal to avert the spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed and Obama signed into law in 2011 as part an agreement to raise the government’s borrowing limit.

RELATED: GOP could pay political price on sequester

As part of that sequestration plan, $1.2 trillion in federal spending will be cut over 10 years, totaling $44 billion for the period beginning March 1 and ending in October.

How that amount will be cut from federal spending this fiscal year is both a question of practical governance -- which workers will be furloughed and for how long -- and a matter of political spectacle -- how the president and his allies use those furloughs, canceled Navy deployments, or other actions to shape the American people’s views of the spending cuts.

Obama implied Tuesday that Americans’ physical safety would be in jeopardy if the spending reductions occur: “Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go.”

And on Wednesday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney cited another potential danger of the spending cuts: more illegal immigrants slipping into the United States. Americans, Carney said, who “understandably worry about our border being protected,” would “see a reduction in the Border Patrol because the sequester goes into effect.”

President Barack Obama voices harsh words toward Republican lawmakers Tuesday while speaking about looming budget cuts.

Even if they aren’t endangered by a freed criminal or an illegal immigrant, Americans may be delayed on their next trip: “Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country,” Obama predicted Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said for more than a year that defense spending reductions would impair the readiness of U.S. forces. Last week Admiral Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, supplied some specifics for the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We (will) shut down four air wings on March 1. After 90 days, those pilots lose their certification, and now it takes six to nine months to retrain them at a much higher cost.”

He also said the Navy would need to cancel deployments, defer maintenance on ships and aircraft, and suspend most non-deployed operations, such as training.

But at least one federal agency said it would not furlough its workers.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, joined by emergency responders on February 19, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Jim Dyer, Chief Financial Officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- which licenses and inspects the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants -- said Thursday, “The NRC has reviewed its budget in light of the sequestration and we will continue to accomplish our core safety and security mission. The NRC’s strategy is to minimize the impact of the sequestration on the agency’s ability to successfully accomplish its critical safety and security mission activities for existing licensees. The NRC does not plan to furlough any employees and we are developing a list of impacts to specific contracts should a sequestration occur.”

As Jeffrey Zients, the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, indicated in a memo last month, furloughs of Border Patrol agents or other federal workers are not the only option if the spending cuts occur.

Federal agency heads should, Zients said, “identify the most appropriate means to reduce civilian workforce costs” with steps that include not only furloughs but hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary employees and early retirement incentives.

In his battle to convince the American people to pressure Congress to again postpone the cuts, Obama might have more leverage if the law didn’t exempt most Americans who receive benefit payments from the federal government, for example, the 55 million who get Social Security payments.

Perhaps the president can focus his attention on House Republicans in swing districts and make sure that their voters know the federal facilities in that district might be closed. But as political analyst Charlie Cook noted this week, there are few swing districts left.

At this point, the Cook Political Report lists only one House Republican, Rep. Gary Miller of California, as facing a toss-up race in 2014.

As members of Congress and their constituents wait to see what effects the cuts might have, some Republicans are taking steps to show that they’re making their own sacrifices in the cause of deficit reduction. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., announced Thursday that he has returned more than $160,000 from his office account.

In an interview Thursday, Mulvaney said there are four major federal facilities in his district as well as an Army Reserve base.  Shaw Air Force Base, one of the largest Air Force bases on the East Coast, is in his district.

In meetings with his constituents, Mulvaney said, “What I’ve heard about is businesses in the area around the base – the town of Sumter, the county of Sumter, the restaurants down there, the car dealerships. Nothing specifically directed toward furloughs of civilian employees (of the Defense Department) but there is a concern about the impact” on the local economy.

But on the other hand, he said, “I just did a town hall meeting the other night in my largest city. We took three-and-a-half hours of questions and I did not get a single question about the sequester’s impact.”

Mulvaney was one of 66 House Republicans to vote against the Budget Control Act; 174 voted for it. House Democrats split on the Budget Control Act, 95 to 95.

As for Obama controlling the way in which the spending cuts will hit, Mulvaney said, “I think the president gets to do his job. As much as I don’t like the outcome of the election, the American people wanted this gentleman to be the chief executive and if he wants to close this particular (national) park and not that one, I think that’s his obligation and his right by virtue of his office.”

He added, “Is it politically disadvantageous (to Republicans to have Obama and his aides controlling how the cuts hit)? Probably -- but we’ve got bigger political disadvantages right now than him closing one national park instead of another.”

House Republicans argue that they have already passed alternative spending cut bills to avoid the sequester, but Carney told reporters Wednesday that Obama thinks “we ought to continue seeking and striving for completion of the so-called grand bargain” in which Republicans would agree to more tax increases and Obama would agree to reductions in the growth rate of Medicare and other benefit programs.

While that “grand bargain” was being pursued, Carney suggested, Congress should again delay the spending cuts. And he indicated that Obama views the Republican vows to not agree to another tax increase as mere bluff.

“We hear these declarative statements from Capitol Hill and also from the press about what can and cannot pass,” he said. “We heard them last year about how revenue would never be allowed” and that Republicans “would never allow tax rates to go up.”

And yet in the end, Carney said, Republicans caved in and voted for a $700 billion tax increase as part of the year-end fiscal cliff accord. He implied Republicans would fold again this year as they did last year.

Mulvaney disagrees: “I think the president has probably gotten all the tax increases he’s going to get.”