Twenty-five years ago, I started out as reporter in Prince William County, Va. Back then, a slew of young reporters were cutting their teeth in the hinterland near Washington — John Harris, the great Washington Post reporter and editor of Politico; Pierre Thomas, also at The Post then but now senior Justice Department correspondent for ABC News; and the talented Laurie Kellman, a colleague at the Prince William Journal now on the Hill for the Associated Press.
We crossed paths from time to time, but every year, we'd gather at the county's McCoart Administration Center for the annual budget kabuki dance. And quite a dance it was. Every year, the county staffers would ask for much more money — 9, 10, 12 percent increases. The school system, too. Sometimes, the far higher proposed spending budgets would require increases to tax rates. Teachers, union officials and county gadflies would pack the county building for the show.
While the debate was different each year, every time — every single time — one thing would occur: County officials and school administrators would paint the bleakest picture possible should they receive even one penny less than demanded.
The county would bus in dozens of mentally ill children, warning of cuts to work programs. The schools would do the same, threatening big cuts to special education programs. The county would assert that some parks and lakes would need to be closed to save money; schools warned that after-school sports programs would be impossible without the additional money.
So, every year, the county supervisors would acquiesce and pass the budgets almost exactly as proposed. I was always amazed at how simplistic and ham-handed the process was — propose an exorbitant budget, trot in the downtrodden, get your cash.
We all moved on from our Prince William days, and frankly, I thought I'd never see such amateur politics again.
But I was wrong. Just this past week, we've seen President Obama operating like a third-rate county supervisor, threatening all kinds of horrible outcomes should the fearsome "sequestration" take effect. His has been a display so callow, so clumsy, that it once again makes one wonder just how small this president can make the presidency.
You won't believe it if I just sum up what he said, so we'll go straight to the transcript of his early-week press conference — in which he was surrounded by police officers and emergency responders — on the horrors sequestration will visit upon America:
"It will jeopardize our military readiness. It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research. It won't consider whether we're cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day. It doesn't make those distinctions," Mr. Obama said.
"Emergency responders, like the ones who are here today, their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters, will be degraded," he said. "Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go ...
"Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings."
Oh. My. God. Well, it's all over, America. There's no surviving this. No, the nation will surely descend into mayhem should automatic cuts trim $85 billion out of $3.8 trillion federal budget.
Wait, what? All this destruction if the budget drops from 3,800 billion dollars to 3,715 billion dollars?
Of course not. The entire case argued by the president is absurd. What's more, sequestration was initiated by the White House, and in November 2011 Mr. Obama warned: "Already, some in Congress are trying to undo these automatic spending cuts. My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts — domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one."
So, it's come to this: The most powerful man in the world is now nothing more than a lowly county official, painting horrific pictures of destruction should he not get his demands. It's hard to imagine how Mr. Obama can make the presidency any smaller. Every action he takes now is calculated for maximum political advantage — damn the country.
And just when you think he can't go any lower, boom, he does. With a compliant media, he gets away with it. But history will not be kind to the man who miniaturized the presidency.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @josephcurl.