President Obama on Tuesday ramped up fears over looming federal budget cuts, telling the public that both the economy and public safety would be threatened if the cuts kick in March 1.
Surrounding himself with first responders at a White House appearance, Obama warned that the across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, would take a "meat cleaver" to defense, education, medical research, air traffic control, and police and fire departments.
"Emergency responders like the ones who are here today -- their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded," the president said. "Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go."
Senior administration officials later amplified the president's concerns, noting that furloughs and layoff notices are set to be sent out to federal workers in coming days.
Despite the president's dire warnings, the stock market is showing no signs of panic. And a Gallup poll released Tuesday found that while most Americans still feel negatively about the economy, their confidence that things will turn around is near a five-year high.
Analysts said the White House push to raise public fears over the budget cuts may leave many Americans feeling like they've heard it all before, that it's just one more dire warning from a president who regularly takes his case to the public to pressure Congress to act.
"It's like the boy who cried wolf," Mitchell McKinney, a political communication professor at the University of Missouri, said of Obama's message. "It loses its impact because we've heard it all before. We've had the [debt] ceiling, the [fiscal] cliff -- the ire from the public isn't there."
White House officials said Obama will step up his travels promoting his package of short-term spending cuts and tax increases, hoping to raise awareness of a largely esoteric issue.
If Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal, the federal budget will automatically be cut by $85 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years -- roughly half of which would come from the Pentagon's budget.
Republicans want to insulate the Pentagon from the deep cuts, but they've ruled out the tax increases that Obama seeks. The GOP on Tuesday countered that Obama is trying to scare the public to gain negotiating leverage with Congress. They argue that there is plenty to cut from the budget that won't affect firefighters and cops.
"Surely the president won't cut funds to first responders," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, "when just last year Washington handed out an estimated $115 billion in payments to individuals who weren't even eligible to receive them, or at a time when 11 different government agencies are funding 90 different green energy programs."
At least one of the first responders standing next to the president also sensed that Obama's public safety warnings were political theater, not a clarion call to avoid Draconian cuts.
"I felt like a potted plant," he told The Washington Examiner before being ushered away from reporters.