With sequester in swing, Obama switches his focus to other priorities

President Obama will shift his focus to immigration, gun control, increasing the minimum wage and other second-term priorities now that the sequester cuts have begun.

With both sides digging in over the cuts and the blame game down Pennsylvania Avenue well under way, the White House sees little hope of replacing the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts anytime soon.

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It intends to keep hammering Republicans over the issue by arguing the cuts will hamper economic growth and constrain the military, but the all-out effort on the sequester will slow down so that the administration can use the bully pulpit on other issues as well.

“It’s important to show the American people we’re on all four cylinders tackling the issues they care about,” a senior administration official said. “What we don’t want to do is cave, so until they’re willing to compromise [on the sequester], there’s not much more we can do.”

Obama began the first Cabinet meeting of his second term on Monday by talking about the sequester, saying that it is an “area of deep concern.”

“Everybody knows where I stand on this issue,” he added.

He then quickly shifted to immigration, saying “my agenda is obviously broader than just the sequester.”

Republicans say they plan to take advantage of Obama’s full-plate agenda when it comes to handling the issue.

One senior House GOP aide labeled the current state of affairs a “staring contest.” Republicans believe they have set themselves up to win the waiting game on this issue.

“I don’t believe there’s any chance they can increase the pressure enough for us to raise taxes again,” the Republican aide said. “That said, if they have any desire to, it will require a huge investment of time, resources, and political capital. At the expense of the rest of the agenda, he’d have to barnstorm the country and drive a singular message that the sequester is so devastating that we have to raise taxes.

“There’s no way they can put in that investment without taking their eye off the ball on immigration, guns and whatever else they’d like to do,” the aide continued. “I don’t think they’re willing to risk losing those things over sequestration.”

The aide said because the White House wasn’t willing to risk a government shutdown over the sequester, both sides are “simply going to wait.”

“We don’t like sequestration at all, but they are clearly more concerned about the effects of these spending cuts than we are,” the aide said. “The longer it lasts, the more willing they will be to cut other spending. We’re prepared to wait them out.”

In the lead-up to the sequester deadline, the White House spent very little time negotiating with congressional leaders. Instead, Obama sought to take his arguments directly to the public with a series of campaign-style events in which he lambasted Republicans for holding up the process.

But the messaging strategy hasn’t proven to be entirely successful. A Gallup poll out on Monday showed 51 percent of Americans didn’t know enough to say whether the spending cuts were good or bad for the economy and that only 30 percent of those surveyed thought it was a bad thing.

Still, White House officials are keeping the fire on Republicans for the time being. White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday lobbed criticism at Republicans and held them responsible for not doing their part to iron out a deal.

“This is a wholly unnecessary decision that was made by Republicans to — allow this happen,” Carney said. “If you step back, what is somewhat remarkable about it, you see Republicans calling it a victory, a victory for the Tea Party or a victory because they stood up to the president on spending.”

Carney said that defied GOP goals, because despite the fact that Republicans say the across-the-board cuts are part of long-term deficit reduction, “the sequester doesn’t achieve that.”

“Republicans say they want entitlement reforms. There’s nothing in the sequester that achieves entitlement reform. They say they want tax reform. There’s nothing here that meets that objective.”

As of Monday, Obama didn’t appear to be budging on his stance on the sequester.

While he reached out to some lawmakers over the weekend — including some Republicans — he continued to call for a “balanced approach” of spending cuts, revenues and entitlement reforms “that everybody knows is the right way to do things.”

Obama called a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the spending cuts over the weekend, White House officials said. But Carney on Monday would not elaborate on what was discussed or even which lawmakers Obama called.