President Obama declared for the first time last night that he would block the large, automatic cuts in defense set to take effect early next year after Republican rival Mitt Romney sharply criticized the administration for weakening U.S. armed forces just as the nation is facing a nuclear threat from Iran and growing tumult in the Middle East.
The president’s remarks during his third and final debate with Romney in Boca Raton, Fla., caught Romney and other GOP leaders by surprise, and may have been aimed at reassuring defense industry workers in Virginia, Ohio and other key battleground states two weeks before the election.
A formidable array of players, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., to former Vice President Dick Cheney and the CEOs of Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney and EADS North America, have mobilized against the roughly $500 billion in long-term across-the-board defense cuts that will kick in beginning in early January, absent congressional intervention.
Romney charged last night that the combination of those automatic cuts and an additional $400 billion of defense savings previously agreed to by the president “is making our future less certain and less secure.” Obama is seeking to shrink defense spending to 3 percent of GDP or less in the coming years, while Romney wants a minimum of 4 percent.
Though the president until now has had little to say about the automatic cuts or “sequestration,” last night he blamed Congress for the cuts and flatly declared that they would not happen. “First of all, the sequester is not something that I proposed,” Obama said. “It’s something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen. The budget that we’re talking about is not reducing our military spending. It’s maintaining it.”
Obama didn’t explain further how he intends to block the automatic cuts – and the White House didn’t respond today to a request for additional information.
McCONNELL AND OTHERS REACT
A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told Reuters today, "We were all surprised by the President saying that the sequester ‘will not happen,' given that he still hasn't presented a plan to make sure it ‘will not happen.'"
While the GOP-led House has already taken action, Democrats in the Senate haven't even passed a budget, and the president has presented no plan to prevent the defense cuts, according to the aide. The divided Congress is controlled in the House by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats.
Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said, "If the sequester isn't going to happen, as he says, will the president finally offer a plan to solve the problem? For the past year, the president has refused to show any leadership in resolving the sequester he proposed, so forgive us if we have doubts about his newfound desire to tackle the issue."
David Plouffe, White House senior adviser, told reporters in the spin room after Monday night's debate that Obama was merely expressing the same desire as everyone else. "No one wants it to happen. ... No one thinks it should happen," said Plouffe.
Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy and defense expert with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said today she was stunned by Obama’s declaration because “I haven’t seen him lift a finger to stop the cuts” until now. “I think he thought that was all he needed to say to reassure voters in Ohio and in Virginia that their [defense-related] jobs were secure – and I don’t think voters are that dumb,” Pletka told The Fiscal Times. “You know, you can’t eat an assertion.”