Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Americans sick of budget soap opera

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
March 2, 2013 -- Updated 1537 GMT (2337 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen says everyone he talks to is turned off by mandatory budget cut mess
  • Gergen: We are leaderless; neither Congress nor president is taking responsibility
  • Most Americans have no idea of what "sequestration" means or what it will do, he says
  • Gergen: All sides are using this as a political scare tactic; they have a duty to pass a bill

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- In travels this week -- to Boston, Chicago, New York -- friends and strangers alike have said the same thing: They are turned off and tuned out of the sequestration mess in Washington. To a person, they are sick of the antics of those to whom they have entrusted enormous power.

In times past, a president has usually risen to the demands of leadership when a Congress has stubbornly resisted tough choices, such as the upcoming mandatory budget cuts that are called sequestration.

That's what Lyndon Johnson did in persuading key Republicans to help pass the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965. And that's what Bill Clinton did in working with a Republican House led by Newt Gingrich. People forget how hostile House Republicans were to Clinton -- hell, they impeached him -- but he nonetheless worked with them to pass four straight balanced budgets and an overhaul of welfare.

Obama signs order activating "dumb" budget cuts

David Gergen
David Gergen

In other times, Congress has displayed serious leadership when a president has lost his way. That's what Congress did to curtail overseas military ventures after two presidents in a row got us into a quagmire in Vietnam. And that's what top congressmen like Sam Ervin and Howard Baker did when Richard Nixon went off the tracks in Watergate.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But today, we have a rare moment when both Congress and the president are retreating from their responsibilities. It's hard to recall a time when we were so leaderless.

One of the foremost duties of Congress is to pass a budget: It has failed for four straight years. Republicans, especially in the House, have continually refused to meet the White House halfway. Meanwhile, a president who promised to be a solution has become part of the problem. Ever since his re-election, Barack Obama has seemed more intent on campaigning than governing.

A new Washington Post/Pew poll gives some measure of how the public is turning away. Only one in four Americans is following news of the sequester. And as Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake wrote in Tuesday's Post, "Not only are most people paying very little attention to the sequester, they also have only the faintest sense of what it would do. Fewer than one in five, or 18%, in the Post-Pew poll say they understand 'very well' what would happen if the sequester went into effect."

Cillizza and Blake argue that far more people paid attention to the fiscal cliff because their taxes might go up. Fair enough, but in my conversations, people were mostly fed up with the soap opera.

What to do?

Obama: Cuts a 'self-inflicted wound'
Boehner to Senate: Get off your a**
TSA cuts: Longer airport security lines

Last weekend in Italy, voters were so disgusted with their politicians that an upstart political movement led by a political comedian won the most votes of any single party. Is it time to draft Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert?

Perhaps, but in the meantime, the president and the Congress have one solemn and urgent responsibility: Having created this mess, they must -- stress must -- work together to minimize the disruptions and hardships that they are promising will happen. It is insane that a series of cuts that represent only 2.5% of all federal spending and 5% of the budgets of most federal agencies will be allowed -- according to the administration -- to create havoc with airplane flights, bring grinding slowdowns to meat inspections, force an aircraft carrier to stay in port ... the litany goes on.

To anyone who has been through numerous short shutdowns of government in the past, this sounds suspiciously like the "Washington Monument syndrome": the tendency of federal bureaucrats faced with budget cuts to shut down the most visible services first, causing screams and forcing the cuts to be rescinded.

Administration spokesmen say their hands are tied by the sequestration law because it requires even, across-the-board cuts. But if that is the case, change the law. Everyone knows it is a stupid piece of legislation. Fortunately, some senators on both sides of the aisle -- Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democrat Barbara Mikuski of Maryland among them -- are working on legislation that would give the administration flexibility in making the cuts so that disruptions can be kept as small as possible.

So far, the White House and Majority Leader Harry Reid are saying no. The White House has made the argument that minimizing the effects would make people too complacent about what comes from reducing spending. In reality, what they are trying to do is to make Republicans look so bad that they will cave in. This is a terrible way to govern: Washington politicians should not turn citizens into suffering pawns in order to get their way.

Meanwhile, Republicans like John McCain are objecting that such a correction to the sequestration law would cede too much power to the president. The concern about excessive power is legitimate, but surely a way can be found so that the White House and Congress would share power and any other arrangements be strictly limited in time.

Perhaps, if wisdom once again rears its head, this mess will be so awful the president and Congress will get back to the bargaining table and come up with a long-term solution. But in the meantime, Obama and Congress have a duty to lead -- and that means to pass a bill that will minimize disruption and pain.

By the way, speaking of comedians as politicians, Al Franken has turned out to be a pretty darn good senator.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT