After warning the public for weeks of the dire consequences of automatic budget cuts, President Obama told business leaders Wednesday night that many people won't feel the impact immediately.
"This is not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward," Mr. Obama said at the Business Council dinner in Washington.
The president said unless a company is directly related to the Defense Department or is located in a town with a military installation, "It's conceivable that in the first week, the first two weeks, the first three weeks, the first month ... a lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester."
The so-called "sequester" cuts are due to begin taking effect Friday and would cut $85 billion in federal spending by the end of September. The White House proposed the cuts during deficit negotiations with Congress in 2011, although both sides say they envisioned that more targeted cuts would have replaced the arbitrary, across-the-board cuts by now.
Negotiations have bogged down over Mr. Obama's insistence on raising another $580 billion in tax revenue.
The president, who has been warning of consequences ranging from airport delays to lax border security, said the sequester "is going to be a big hit on the economy."
"Both private sector as well as public sector economists are estimating that we could lose as much as six-tenths of a point, maybe a little bit more, of economic growth," he said. "That means, inevitably, hundreds of thousands of people who are not going to get jobs that otherwise would get them."
Mr. Obama has invited congressional leaders to the White House on Friday to discuss options for avoiding at least some of the cuts. But he told the business leaders that he's not optimistic.
"Whether that can be done in the next two days — I haven't seen things done in two days here in Washington in quite some time," he said. "The good news is that I think the public is beginning to pay attention to this."
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