February 27, 2013

Crisis fatigue: Americans tune out budget cut talk

Josh Lederman / The Associated Press

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.

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President Barack Obama warns of automatic defense budget cuts during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding on Tuesday.

AP

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House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wraps up a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where he and GOP leaders challenged President Obama and the Senate to avoid the automatic spending cuts set to take effect in four days. Boehner complained that the House, with Republicans in the majority, has twice passed bills that would replace the across-the-board cuts known as the "sequester" with more targeted reductions, while the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, has not acted. He is followed by Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas is at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

AP

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.

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