"Spit in the ocean" -- it's a phrase that's well-worn, and for a reason, namely that it sums up so splendidly the idea of something that is itsy-bitsy relative to something very, very big.
"Sequestration" -- it's a four-syllable word referring to across-the-board spending cuts of $85 billion scheduled for automatic implementation with the purpose of reducing deficits and better controlling the federal debt. However large it sounds, the amount is spit next to the oceanic gobs of owed money that could easily drown the American economy.
You'd hardly know as much listening to President Barack Obama. You almost get the idea that sequestration means the military will have to fight off terrorists with bare fists, that lonely students will sit in schools minus teachers, that hospitals will be bereft of caregivers and that no air traffic controllers will be at airports to let your planes take off crash-free for long-planned vacations.
I promise you, it's not as bad as he says, though there are problems. They are mostly Obama's fault. He and his White House gang are mostly to blame for the whole idea and he is the one primarily in the way of doing something about the confusion, inconvenience and worse that will result in the absence of a deal with Republicans to set things right.
The fact is that House Republicans have already passed legislation substituting considered spending cuts for across-the-board, indiscriminate ones and that those refusing compromise are Obama and Senate Democrats. Ideologically fixated on ever-bigger, more controlling government, the president says there will be no bargain without still more tax hikes on top of those he won in the so-called fiscal cliff deal.
And while the Republicans really should go along with nuanced tax reform of the pro-growth kind, the first thing should be the spending cuts.
Obama may have figured he could get what he wanted if he said that was the only way Republicans would get what they wanted -- an end to the sequestration's thoughtless spending cuts in defense.
Instead, the Republicans have apparently noticed what The Washington Examiner's Byron York has pointed out: Those cuts just slow down the rate of defense spending growth.
Concerning the bigger picture, columnist George F. Will has observed that the overall sequestration cuts in the first year would still leave federal spending 12 percent more than when Obama became president. He says the cuts over 10 years would reduce spending from $46 trillion to $44.8 trillion -- not all that much, especially considering that we borrow something like 40 cents for every dollar spent. Reported federal figures show government spending has gone up by more than $800 per American since 2008, the year before Obama became president.
For all of this, Obama is still likely to win politically. The wily one has spared no propagandistic effort to portray the Republicans as the heartless, reckless bad guys, and too few commentators have caught up with some of the basics, such as the work of The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Though hardly saying the Republicans are sweethearts, he has shown through his research how sequestration became a reality and entered common English usage as a consequence of White House conniving.
The Republicans appear ready to negotiate on how the spending cuts are done, but if they don't surrender to the tax bullying, Obama seems determined to just let the sequestration happen, blaming it on them.
He will still be a hero to a public that voted him back into office, now gives him high favorability ratings and is proving in polls that it's no toughie to fool lots of people most of the time.
As for the Republicans, they will get blamed for this spit in the ocean and get spit in the face in return.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)