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Is Obama winning the PR war over sequester cuts?

Brad KnickerbockerThe Christian Science Monitor

A batch of recent headlines gives an indication of where things stand in the Obama-Republican face-off over sequestration and the automatic government spending cuts that could kick in next Friday.

“GOP losing sequester blame game”

“Democrats' Economic Narrative Still Trumps GOP's”

“Poll: President Obama approval highest since '09”

“President Obama’s popularity surges to three-year high”

“Congress Approval Holding Steady at 15 percent.”

Polls and pundits aren’t everything, of course. Most Americans this weekend likely are far more interested in Sunday night’s Oscar extravaganza.

And most would likely agree with Atlantic associate editor Matthew O'Brien when he writes – with as much truth as irony – on the magazine’s web site: “There is nothing more tedious in the world today than the sequester. The word itself sounds like a prescription sleeping aid.” There is, after all the gnashing of teeth over the “fiscal cliff” last month, a bit of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” here for most people.

Still, if the sequester kicks in, thousands of federal workers could be furloughed, some national park programs could be curtailed, and things could be “very painful for the flying public,” as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Friday.

The sequester no doubt will dominate the Sunday morning TV news shows as Republicans and Democrats angle for rhetorical advantage over the sequester’s $85 billion in budget cuts this fiscal year, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs.

At the moment, that advantage seems to be with President Obama and the White House. Just to flesh out those headlines cited above….

Bloomberg News put it starkly this week: “President Barack Obama enters the latest budget showdown with Congress with his highest job-approval rating in three years and public support for his economic message, while his Republican opponents’ popularity stands at a record low.”

Specifically, 55 percent of those polled by Bloomberg last week approve of Obama’s performance in office, his strongest level of support since September 2009. But only 35 percent have a favorable view of the Republican Party, the lowest rating over the same period. The GOP’s brand slipped six percentage points in the last six months, the poll shows.

Asked who is more to blame for “what’s gone wrong” in Washington, those surveyed picked Republicans over Obama 43-34 percent.

Similarly, Gallup finds public approval of Congress – just 15 percent – is “at the low end of the historical spectrum.” It’s not great news for either party, but Democrats have a slight edge in public approval – 19 percent to 12 percent for the GOP.

Obama, meanwhile, enjoys “his highest favorability ratings since his first year in office,” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

“Fully 60 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Obama in the new poll, up slightly from October but a clear shift in opinion from an election year in which his ratings hovered in the mid-to-low 50s,” the Washington Post reported. “And by 39 percent to 26 percent, the president now has more ‘strongly’ positive ratings than strongly negative reviews, breaking a two-year stretch in which intense opposition was on par with (or higher than) intense support.”

As a result, “Obama holds the upper hand politically over congressional Republicans,” regarding deficit reduction and the sequester, the Pew Research Center and USA Today reported this week. “If there is no deficit deal by March 1, 49 percent say congressional Republicans would be more to blame while just 31 percent would mostly blame President Obama.”

Much of this no doubt has to do with how the message is portrayed.

“One of the reasons Republicans are faring so badly these days is that the Democratic narrative, presented most persuasively and effectively by the White House, plays more easily into the national media’s preference for dramatic stories that evoke emotional responses,” writes Stuart Rothenberg in Roll Call.

Thus, does Obama make his pitch in front of a group of first responders, asking if they – or teachers, or Border Patrol agents, or air traffic controllers – should be laid off “to protect a special interest loophole.”

“Television covers this narrative better than it covers the Republican message, which is that the nation’s deficit and debt are at unsustainable levels and cannot go on increasing without profound economic consequences that will hurt all Americans eventually,” Mr. Rothenberg writes.

“We raised taxes last time, and we aren’t going to do it again” is not a compelling message, he writes. “Until Republicans figure out a way to re-fashion the political debate and present their vision in a more compelling way – which means telling stories that evoke strong emotions in average people – the White House and Democrats in Congress will continue to have the advantage.”

On PBS’s The Newshour Friday evening, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed.

“I personally think the likely loser in this is the Republicans,” he said. “Unfortunately, when they embrace [the sequester], they are embracing a piece of legislation that makes no distinction between good government and bad government. It just cuts randomly across the board, and, worse, doesn't even cut the things that actually create the debt problem, which is the entitlement programs. So, to me, this is both a substantive and political serious problem for Republicans.”