President Obama has risked weakening his hand in future fiscal battles with Republicans as the across-the-board budget cuts arrived without triggering the cataclysm his administration spent weeks forecasting, experts said.
Virtually no Americans felt immediate changes in their lives after Obama and congressional leaders failed to reach a pact to avoid the start of $85 billion in cuts beginning March 1.
Although he walked back his characterization of the cuts, saying, "This is not going to be an apocalypse," Obama had already devoted ample political capital to selling a doomsday scenario. Conservatives ultimately called Obama's bluff, and now the start of the president's second term looks a lot like the end of his first -- gridlocked.
"He's certainly come down from his post-election high," said Charles Walcott, a Virginia Tech political scientist who focuses on the presidency. "This amounts to a setback and weakens him going forward. He misread his ability to pry higher taxes from Republicans."
Obama assumed the prospect of deep cuts, particularly to the Pentagon, would force Republicans to give in to his demands for more taxes, even after securing a rate increase for the wealthiest Americans earlier this year. He was wrong -- and Obama has already signaled that he's opposed to using the next fiscal conflict to get his way on closing tax loopholes for corporate jet owners and oil companies.
Obama and lawmakers face a March 27 deadline to reach a deal to keep the federal government funded. The White House says Obama would not veto a continuing resolution for the budget because of sequester demands, meaning the cuts could be here to stay, at least in the short term. According to House Speaker John Boehner's office, Obama and congressional leaders agreed legislation should be enacted to prevent a government shutdown separately from the fight over the $85 billion in cuts.
Then the president faces another game of chicken with Republicans over raising the nation's debt ceiling. With the across-the-board cuts having already gone into effect, some conservatives say they have little motivation to turn them off during talks to increase the nation's borrowing capacity.
And in light of his inability to restructure the indiscriminate cuts, Obama is now forced to re-evaluate his public pitch and plan for converting Republicans dead set against any tax increases.
"It's going to have a drag effect," Republican pollster Glen Bolger said of the fallout from Obama's public campaign against the spending cuts. "He was nothing more than a spectator during the whole process. The public dissatisfaction will be like a snowball rolling [downhill] -- it's just going to get bigger and bigger."
But Democrats counter that the most recent episode of Washington dysfunction demonstrates just how unwilling Republicans are to compromise, and will cement Obama's claim that his political opponents are obstructionists.
"Republicans don't seem to know or care that they are in deep trouble with the public, that this only reinforces their strong negatives," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "But I'll admit, it's hard for Obama to be in a strong position with people oblivious to everything going on around them."