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‘I’m not a dictator’ — so federal spending cuts a reality

President Barack Obampauses as he speaks reporters White House briefing room WashingtFriday March 1 2013 following after meeting with congressional

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks to reporters in the White House briefing room in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2013, following after meeting with congressional leaders regarding the automatic spending cuts. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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Updated: April 3, 2013 6:14AM

WASHINGTON — Faced with the reality of no agreement with Republicans to prevent the sequester — forced across-the-board federal spending cuts — President Barack Obama lamented Friday the limit of his powers.

“I am not a dictator. I’m the president,” Obama said to CNN’s Jessica Yellin after she asked him at a press conference if he could just keep the congressional leaders in a room until they have a deal.

Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but nothing happened to head off the Friday sequester deadline.

With no drama — compared to the countdown clock frenzy of the fiscal cliff crisis over the New Year’s holiday — the nation sailed into the uncharted waters of the sequester. The fiscal cliff was a manufactured deadline, with the only way out of it to kick the can down the road to Friday.

That we are at this stage disproves one of Washington’s heretofore valued conventional wisdoms: that deadlines, whether real of self-imposed (that’s what we’ve got here) force compromise.

Congress was not even in session on Friday, with members long gone, that’s how anticipated it was by the White House and the congressional leaders that this sequester was going to happen.

Obama’s main strategy at this point — in the days running up to Friday and in the weeks ahead — is to turn up the heat on Republicans.

“Let’s be clear,” Obama said. “None of this is necessary. It’s happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made.”

He added a little later, “I do know that there are Republicans in Congress who privately, at least, say they would rather close tax loopholes than let these cuts go through.”

Obama dinged Boehner and McConnell, suggesting that most Republicans agree with him and “we just need Republicans in Congress to catch up with their own party and their country on this.”

The Republican major tactic for now is to sit tight and continue to portray themselves as the champions of cost-cutting and preventing tax increases.

Emerging from the White House meeting, Boehner, referring to prior votes and the fiscal cliff tax hikes for high income earners said: “The House has laid out a plan to avoid the sequester. I would hope that the Senate would act. But let’s make it clear that the president got his tax hikes on January 1st. This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over.

“It’s about taking on the spending problem here in Washington.”

At issue are cuts — $85 billion for fiscal year 2013 — in defense and domestic spending, but not Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The sequester will not kick in right away: Federal employee furlough days won’t start until April and the federal grant spigot will not turn off all at once. The impact on states will vary. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan wrote to Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday saying the state will lose under the sequester $53 million in low-income rental assistance and cuts in programs to help the homeless.

So what happens next?

Not much.

The White House is pondering where to send Obama to leverage his bully pulpit — those trips the Republicans accuse Obama of making as part of an endless campaign.

After Obama explained to Yellin about being a president, not a dictator, she pressed him about leadership.

Obama came back with a mixed reference to a Star Trek Vulcan and a Star Wars Jedi in saying how hard it to strike a bargain with Republicans.

Obama said he just can’t “do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.”

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