Why most Americans are yawning over 'sequester' – and why that matters

Cal Jillson, political scientist at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, talks about most Americans' misunderstanding and/or disinterest in the sequester.

By Linda Feldmann

Washington - President Obama is working hard to ramp up public agitation over the looming “sequester” – big, across-the-board spending cuts that, if fully implemented, could send the US economy back into recession. If the sequester goes into effect and starts doing damage, blame the Republicans, Mr. Obama says.

On Tuesday, the president holds his latest campaign-style event focused on what the cuts would mean for real people. Obama is speaking at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., a coastal city whose economic health depends on Navy contracts.  

Workers in Newport News are understandably anxious. But to much of the country, “sequester” is just a weird word that doesn’t mean much or affect them personally. Only 1 in 4 Americans is following the debate over the $85 billion in federal spending cuts scheduled to kick in on Friday, according to a new poll by the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center. Even fewer people – 18 percent – say they understand the issue “very well.”

Part of the problem could be the lexicon. Who knows what “sequester” means?...

Obama’s PR strategy is working for now, “because of widespread public ignorance; people don’t watch politics closely enough,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

But if people’s attention widens, Obama’s edge could evaporate. “Their support for him is as thin as their knowledge,” Mr. Jillson says.