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Suffering from Crisis Fatigue, Americans Tune Out Sequester Talk

President ObamaBy JOSH LEDERMAN

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is pulling out all the stops to warn just what could happen if automatic budget cuts kick in. Americans are reacting with a collective yawn.

They know the shtick: Obama raises the alarm, Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of holding a deal hostage, there's a lot of yelling on cable news, and then finally, when everyone has made their points, a deal is struck and the day is saved.

Maybe not this time. Two days before $85 billion in cuts are set to hit federal programs with all the precision of a wrecking ball, there are no signs that the White House and Republicans in Congress are even negotiating. Both sides appear quietly resigned to the prospect that this is one bullet we just may not dodge.

Still, for all the grim predictions, Americans seem to be flipping the channel to something a little less, well, boring. They wonder, haven't we been here before?

It's like deja vu, says Patrick Naylon, who runs an audiovisual firm in San Francisco: "The same stuff, over and over again."

Texas native Corby Biddle, 53, isn't losing sleep over the cuts. No way the government will let vital services collapse, he said as he visited tourist attractions this week in downtown Atlanta.

"It will get resolved. They will kick the can down the road," Biddle said.

Usually, that's exactly what happens. Even the cuts behind the current panic were originally supposed to kick in on Jan. 1 -- part of the fiscal-cliff combo of spending cuts and tax hikes that economists warned could nudge the nation back into recession. For all the high drama, lawmakers finally acted on New Year's Day, compromising on taxes and punting the spending cuts to March 1.

And the blunt instrument known as the "sequester" that's set to deliver the cuts? That too was the progeny of another moment of government-by-brinksmanship, a concession that in 2011 made possible the grand bargain that saved the U.S. from a first-ever default on its debt.

Even if the current cuts go through, the impact won't be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day every week off without pay, but the furloughs won't start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.

But you can only cry wolf so many times before people just stop paying attention.

"I know you guys must get tired of it," Obama told a crowd in Virginia on Tuesday. "Didn't we just solve this thing? Now we've got another thing coming up?"

Three out of 4 Americans say they aren't following the spending cuts issue very closely, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week. It's a significant drop from the nearly 4 in 10 who in December said they were closely following the fiscal-cliff debate.

Public data from Google's search engine shows that at its peak in December, the search term "fiscal cliff" was about 10 times as popular as "sequestration" has been in recent days. Even "debt ceiling," not a huge thriller for the web-surfing crowd, maxed out in July 2011 at about three times the searches the sequester is now getting.

"We're now approaching the next alleged deadline of doom. And voters, having been told previously that the world might end, found it did not in the past and are becoming more skeptical that it will in the future," said Peter Brown of the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

And let's face it: When it comes to policy issues that can really put an audience to sleep, "sequestration" is right up there with filibuster reform, chained CPI and carried interest.

For all the angst about layoffs, furloughs and slashes to government contracts, the markets don't seem to be rattled, either. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, after falling below 13,000 at the height of the fiscal cliff debacle, has been buoyant ever since, spending the last month hovering just below 14,000.

"I shrug my shoulders because I don't believe any of those severe cuts will go through," said Karen Jensen, a retired hospital administrator who stopped to talk in New York's Times Square. "Life goes on as it has before."

But if the Obama administration hasn't managed to convince Americans these spending cuts could be the real deal, it's not for lack of trying.

Each day the cuts grow nearer sees a new dire warning from the White House about another government function that will take a hit if they go into effect -- what White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has called a "devastating list of horribles." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned Monday that her agency will be forced to furlough 5,000 border patrol agents. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said 70,000 preschool kids could be removed from Head Start. Fewer air traffic controllers could mean 90-minute delays or longer in major cities, and visiting hours at all 398 national parks are likely to be cut, the administration has said.

The White House has circulated 51 reports -- one for each state, plus the District of Columbia -- localizing the effects of the cuts. On Tuesday, Obama took his cautionary tale to a shipbuilding site in Newport News, Va., calling attention to how the cuts could impede the military. The White House says in Virginia alone, about 90,000 civilians working for the Defense Department would be furloughed, for a nearly $650 million reduction in gross pay.

"The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people, stop trying to scare the states," Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Monday after governors from both parties met with Obama behind closed doors. "Now's the time to cut spending. It can be done without jeopardizing the economy. It can be done without jeopardizing critical services."

The age-old Republican desire for a scaled-back federal government makes it clear why, on the one hand, the GOP isn't scrambling to avert the cuts -- especially when Obama insists on more tax revenues in any deal. On the other hand, Obama can clearly read the polls that show if the cuts go through, Republicans are likely to bear most of the blame.

Both parties agree that if you're going to cut spending, an indiscriminate mechanism like the sequester is the wrong way to do it. After all, the whole point of the endeavor was to set in motion ramifications so unbearable that lawmakers would be forced to come together and hash out a better plan before the deadline.

Count James Ford of Louisville, Ky., among those still holding out hope.

"They'll come up with something to keep the thing going," he said. "They always do."


Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta, Jake Pearson in New York and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.

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Its not tuned out from "fatigue". Its being tuned out because the average person knows it nonsense. Its the typical Obama administration threat. Do what we want or else you will suffer. The American government has wasted more than 85 billion dollars in the time it has taken me to type this.

February 28 2013 at 12:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Annie O

I say BRING IT ON!!! cut the budget 2% ,.....the rest of us have , so why not the federal government

February 27 2013 at 9:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I didn't tune it out I want it to happen now!! I and my family have tightened our belts for many years now time for our govrment to do the same!!

February 27 2013 at 9:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Personally I'm so fired of the endless stream of negativity emanating from the TV news that for the past couple of weeks I've tuned into the PBS children's programming before going to work. I've noticed a big upswing in my mood and energy.

Now in the evening when I do check into the evening News to see if the world is still turning and hasn't been hit by a meteorite, bombed into oblivion or is under attack from a mysterious and deadly plague carried by butterfiles ... now when it becomes nasty regurgitation of some horrid incident, I aim my remote at the screen and shout "F .... You ...." . which I would never utter aloud outside my apartment.

THEN I click the remote to Big Bird .... and feel a moment of power and control over my life.

Big Bird is the answer to sanity and faith in the world ... the future and our kids. And Big Bird has sure helped me face the day with more equanimity.

February 27 2013 at 8:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's really nice to know that the republicans will get most of the blame.

February 27 2013 at 8:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I will tell you what the Americans will not tune out: Our country's credit rating dropping again as a resutl of a do nothing Congress. I hope they get that.

February 27 2013 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ron Schmitz

Turn off the alarm!!! Let's all take the hit instead of passing more debt to our children and grandchildren. We all should just be toughen up instead of crying like sissies with a loaf of bread under each arm.

February 27 2013 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Ron Schmitz

I want the automatic buget cuts to kick in. So be it. If we can't raise the revenue then we have to cut the spending. 10% seems very realistic. Think of a guy who loses his job. He gets a 100% buget cut. People manage. We survive. If my personal budget was cut 10% then so be it. I will find a way to survive in life.

February 27 2013 at 7:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ron Schmitz's comment

There are stupid people out there that really believe 10% of the total budget is being cut. It's actually only 8% of the total deficit spending for the year. In actuality, the spending plan for this year is more than last year in total, even with this "sequestration". Only in government can you slow the growth of spending, and a particular left-wing party will actually try to sell it as a cut. I guess Chuck Schumer says it's a cut, so it must be.

February 27 2013 at 8:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

This is an interesting headline about Americans tuning out sequester talk. For me, it's so much of a farcical game being played in D.C., I know that nothing I do or say now will make any difference. This isn't a representative government.

February 27 2013 at 7:42 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Sequestration? Let Obama take the $85 billion out of the programs that are least intrusive, BUT he refuses to do his job! We are only talking about 2.4 cents out of every dollar. There is no need for drastic cuts in essentials, but he refuses to do his job! He would rather blame Republicans for drastic cuts than to do his job! What a President! Let the BUCK stop here?

February 27 2013 at 7:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ordnance6's comment

A real leader would push for a 25% budget cut.

February 27 2013 at 7:40 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Excellent point. Rather than accepting the ability of applying the cuts as the manager of our budget should want to, he would prefer to cast stones at the GOP instead. Grow up Obama: it's not about increasing the size of government year after year anymore! $17 trillion in debt isn't enough?

February 27 2013 at 8:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply