Everyone has been wondering how the public will react when the sequester kicks in. The American people are in the position of hostages who'll have to decide who the hostage-taker is. People will get mad at either the president or the Republicans in Congress. That anger will force one side to rethink or back down. Or maybe the public will get mad at both.
The White House is, as always, confident of its strategy: Scare people as much as possible and let the media take care of the rest. Maybe there will be a lot to report, maybe not, but either way the sobbing child wanting to go to Head Start and the anxious FAA bureaucrat worried about airplane maintenance will be found. This will surely have power.
And in truth, the sequester's impact may be bad. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, a 22-year House veteran and ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, this week warned of "over 170 million jobs that could be lost." That's actually more jobs than America has, and it's little comfort to say, "But she's a famous idiot," because Washington is full of famous idiots who are making serious decisions about how the sequester cuts are to be applied.
If the sequester brings chaos and discomfort, it's certainly possible the Republicans will be blamed. But it's just as possible President Obama will be. Not because the sequester idea came from his White House—that probably doesn't interest anybody outside Washington—but because a) he's the president, and presidents are expected to take care of things and work out agreements, not "force the moment to its crisis," and b) he's the chief executive of the federal government and therefore capable of directing agencies to make sure all cuts are in wholly nonessential offices. I was thinking the other day of the General Services Administration scandal—the red-carpet retreat in Vegas, the toasts, the shows, all paid for by taxpayers. Maybe the president could start there.
How's the president's game going? What's new is that almost everyone does seem to understand he's playing games. He used to get more credit. His threats of coming mayhem and his lack of interest in easing it have dimmed his luster.
Certainly in the past few weeks he's become more aggressive and gameful. A crisis is coming—a series of crises actually, with more ceilings and the threat of a government shutdown—and he is not engaging or taking ownership. The "We're not speaking" thing with Congress is more amazing and historic than we appreciate. Only a president can stop that kind of thing, and he doesn't. He doesn't even seem to think he owes the speaker of the House—the highest elected official of a party representing roughly half the country—even the appearance of laying down his arms for a moment and holding serious talks. He journeys into America making speeches, he goes on TV but only for interviews the White House is confident will be soft.
He doesn't have time for Congress, but he has time to go on Al Sharpton's radio show and say Republicans care only about protecting the rich from taxes. Which is the kind of thing that embitters, that makes foes dig in more deeply.
But here's what seems really new. Past presidents, certainly since Ronald Reagan, went over the heads of the media to win over the people, to get them to contact Congress and push Congress to deal. Fine, and fair enough. But Mr. Obama goes to the people to get them to enhance his position by hating Republicans. He's playing only to the polls, not to Congress, not to get the other side to the bargaining table. He doesn't even like the bargaining table. He doesn't like bargaining.
Where does that get us? We are in new territory. There is a strange kind of nihilism in the president's approach. It's a closed, self-referential loop. And it's guaranteed to keep agreement from happening.
Meanwhile, the president has been receiving some raps on the knuckles from journalists and thinkers who've been sympathetic in the past. There's a lot of coolness toward what the president is doing, to his threats of coming disaster. Howard Fineman in the Huffington Post, in a piece called "The Celebrity President," noted that Mr. Obama "doesn't hide his disdain for Congress," for the "folkways of traditional Washington" or for Congress and the media. The president in the next few months should avoid "cheap theatrics," Mr. Fineman added: "Somebody has to be an adult in this situation, and it falls to the president."
Bob Woodward famously slammed the president after he suggested, at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia, that maintenance of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln would be delayed. Before that he'd warned work might have to be slowed or stopped on the USS Truman. Mr. Woodward, on MSNBC: "So we now have the president going out [saying] 'Because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country.' That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."
While the president is bringing a partisan edge and soft-voiced pugilism to the drama, the first lady is becoming . . . let's call it culturally dominant, and in a way that seems politically related, that seems fully networked and wired. Michele Obama is omnipresent—dancing with Jimmy Fallon, chatting with Rachael Ray, on "Good Morning America" talking about the kids, and another show talking about the bangs. On ABC she accidentally said something factually incorrect, and they thoughtfully edited it out. Mrs. Obama's presence reached its zenith, one hopes, Sunday night at the Academy Awards when she came on, goofily star-struck military personnel arrayed in dress uniforms behind her, to announce the Best Picture award. It was startling and, as she gave her benediction—the movies "lift our spirits, broaden our minds, transport us to places we can never imagine"—even in a way disquieting.
Daily declarations from the Wall Street Journal columnist.
This would not be an accidental assertion of jolly partisan advantage. It seemed to me an expression of this White House's lack of hesitation to insert itself into any cultural event anywhere. And this in a 50-50 nation, a divided nation that in its entertainments seeks safety from the encroachments of politics, and the political.
I miss Michelle Obama's early years, when she was beautiful, a little awkward, maybe a little ambivalent about her new role, as a sane person would be. Now she is glamorous, a star, and like all stars assumes our fascination.
It can be hard to imagine after four years in the White House, whichever party you're in, that people might do all right for a few minutes if they're free of your presence. There's a tendency to assume you enliven with that presence, as opposed to deaden with your political overlay.
All of this—the president's disdain for Congress and for Republicans, the threats of damage unless he gets his way, the first lady's forays—is part of the permanent campaign, and the immediate sequester campaign.
But they push it too far. It feels uncalibrated, over some invisible line.
It looks like what critics have long accused this White House of being—imperious, full of overreach, full of itself.
A version of this article appeared March 2, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama Is Playing a New Game.