Republicans see opportunity to beat Obama with Pentagon cuts

The potential for $1 trillion in cuts to the defense budget is thrusting the issue of national security back into the spotlight of the 2012 presidential race.

The cuts, set for January 2013, could also turn a strength into a vulnerability for President Obama, who has more to brag about when it comes to security and foreign affairs than the economy.

Obama’s supporters argue that the president is way ahead of his GOP rivals when it comes to national security, an issue that’s typically perceived as a Republican strength.

Obama already has given campaign stump speeches touting his national security accomplishments, which include the killing of terrorists Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, and the eventual ouster of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

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“He is remarkably strong,” Richard Danzig, a former Navy Secretary and Obama campaign adviser, said at a Democratic National Committee event this week. “The more this election is about security issues, the more advantageous it is to this president.”

Yet Republicans see an opening with the $500 billion in automatic cuts that would hit the defense budget beginning in January 2013,  and several candidates seized on the issue in the last GOP debate. 

Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.) went as far as to suggest Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — who has warned the cuts would harm national security — should resign in protest. Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) tied the cuts to health-care reform, pointing out the defense cuts equaled the cost of “Obamacare.”

“We need to protect America and protect our troops and our military and stop the idea of ‘Obamacare,’” Romney said. “They’re cutting programs, cutting the capacity of America to defend itself.”

Since the cuts don't take effect until January 2013, Congress will have plenty of time to change them, and the GOP will have plenty of opportunities to beat up Obama over the issue. 

Nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates have argued that the military needs to grow to protect U.S. national security. Romney called for an increase in naval shipbuilding and the use of Naval aircraft carriers as a deterrent to Iran, for instance, in a foreign policy speech last month.

James Lindsay, a senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the way the parties frame defense spending will decide who the issue benefits.

“If Republicans succeed in making it a debate about whether to slash the defense budget, that will probably hurt the White House,” Lindsay said. “If it comes down where do you cut to balance the budget, that could potentially help the president… The president wants to broaden the frame to talk about how we bring our fiscal policies in line.”

To be sure, defense is unlikely to overtake the economy as the 2012 election’s dominant issue. While the Iraq war was on the minds of many voters in 2008, jobs and the economy have dominated the debate this year as Congress has emphasized cutting budgets. 

Still, Lindsay said one danger for the White House is that the defense debate may not just be about national security, but also about jobs. In districts with big defense contractors, he said, budget cuts at the Pentagon could have a tangible impact if contractors begin to lay off workers.

The Pentagon is already preparing to cut $450 billion from its budget in the next decade from reductions that were included in the August debt-limit deal. Now that the supercommittee failed, another $500 billion could be trimmed in automatic cuts through sequestration.

Defense hawks in Congress have vowed to reverse the cuts to defense, but they were met with a firm veto threat from Obama on Monday after the supercommittee officially closed shop. Obama said “there will be no easy off-ramps on this one. We need to keep the pressure up on a compromise.”

While Obama attempted to stay out of the supercommittee fray, Republicans are blaming him for its failure, a theme that will likely continue into 2012.

If the sequestration cuts are not altered, the Pentagon’s budget would be reduced to about 2007 levels, according to budget analysts.

Though Panetta continued to ratchet up his rhetoric about the dangers of the automatic cuts in the final weeks of the supercommittee, he stood by the president’s veto threat after the deficit-reduction panel failed Monday.

“Congress cannot simply turn off the sequester mechanism,” he said in a statement, “but instead must pass deficit reduction at least equal to the $1.2 trillion it was charged to pass under the Budget Control Act.”

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that because Congress has more than a year to change sequestration, it’s possible the issue won’t get resolved before the election.

“That means a cloud of uncertainty will be hanging over the discretionary budget, including the defense budget, potentially for the next 13 months,” Harrison said. “Congress will be able to talk about this, debate it, kick it around and potentially not do anything about it until after the November 2012 election.”