By Amie Parnes - 02/12/13 10:00 AM EST
President Obama will use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to turn public opinion against automatic spending cuts and argue that some of the money to replace the cuts should instead come from higher taxes.
He will use the prime-time TV address to argue the economy would be damaged if $85 billion in automatic spending cuts were to go ahead on schedule on March 1, and will seek to set up Republicans to take the blame if they do.
Senate Democrats aim to introduce a sequester replacement bill by Thursday that will include tax hikes and spending cuts. Republicans in Congress say they are willing to replace the sequester, but only with new spending cuts.
The State of the Union address is also expected to highlight Obama’s second-term shift on the deficit.
From 2010 to 2012, the president consistently argued for new spending to spur on the economy, but also called for accompanying spending cuts and tax hikes to rein in the deficit.
But in his radio address on Saturday, Obama emphasized that the White House and Congress already have “cut our deficit by more than $2.5 trillion” through spending cuts and higher tax rates imposed on households with annual incomes above $450,000.
“That’s more than halfway towards the $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists and elected officials from both parties say we need to stabilize our debt,” Obama said Saturday.
The comments signaled the president’s intention to take a hard line against Republican calls to trim entitlements.
A Congressional Budget Office report issued last week found the budget deficit will drop below $1 trillion this year to $845 billion, before falling further by 2015 to $430 billion.
In a more ominous sign, the same CBO report found an aging population and soaring healthcare costs would lead to an explosion in entitlement spending in later years, with budget deficits approaching $1 trillion again by 2023.
While Obama has used the bully pulpit to pressure the GOP and win fights over taxes and spending, Republicans believe they’re in a stronger position this time around.
In fights over the payroll tax cut in 2011 and the Bush tax rates in 2012, the president positioned himself as an advocate for lower taxes on the middle class; if no action was taken, it would have resulted in a tax hike for most households.
In the new battle, a move not to act will result in spending cuts, something Republicans argue that voters want to see.
The GOP is also setting up a blame-game fight by arguing it was Obama who pushed for the sequester as part of the 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling. They are using the Twitter hashtag “#Obamaquester” to emphasize the point.
The White House argued that the 2011 debt-ceiling deal should include across-the-board spending cuts that would be triggered if Congress did not approve a broad deficit-reduction package to keep the country from defaulting on its debts. The cuts were picked so that they would be painful to both parties, and the final package was approved by bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been tapped to give the Republican response to Obama’s Tuesday address. Aides on Monday would not say definitively if he will respond to Obama’s point on the sequester.
The president will couple his remarks on Tuesday night with a barnstorming tour set to begin on Wednesday, when he will travel to North Carolina to deliver a speech largely focused on the economy. Obama will also make another stop in Atlanta on Thursday for a second speech.
The messaging tack is similar to ones employed by the White House in previous fights, when Obama has taken his case directly to the public and sought to put the blame on Congress for stalled legislation.
“Certainly this is the best opportunity for him to sharpen the issue and explain to the American people the stakes,” Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said of the State of the Union address. “There’s not going to be another opportunity with this size of an audience.”
Thornell said the messaging on the budget battles has worked well for the White House, adding, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Republicans point out they approved a sequester replacement bill during the last Congress. Members of the GOP, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), insist that it would be better if the sequester took place than it would be to introduce more tax hikes to replace it.
They also accuse the White House of not putting forward proposals that would eliminate the sequester.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday called those accusations “wholly false.” He argued at his press briefing on Monday that Obama put forward alternatives to the sequester in negotiations with Boehner over the “fiscal cliff.”
In remarks Obama will likely echo on Tuesday, Carney said Congress should work toward “a broader budget agreement that eliminates the sequester entirely and reduces our deficit further by passing a short-term delay in the sequester in a balanced, responsible way — without drama, without delay, without inflicting the kind of unnecessary wound on our economy that we should not be allowing to happen at this time.”