Obama would not say if he bears any of the responsibility for the coming cuts, and expressed bemusement at any suggestion he had the ability to force Republicans to agree with him.
"I am not a dictator. I'm the president," he said. "So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right?" He also declared he couldn't perform a "Jedi mind meld" to sway opponents, mixing "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" as he reached for a science fiction metaphor.
Neither the president nor Republicans claimed to like what was about to happen. Obama called the cuts "dumb," and GOP lawmakers have long said they were his idea in the first place.
Ironically, they derive from a budget dispute they were supposed to help resolve back in the fall of 2011. At the time, a congressional Supercommittee was charged with identifying at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over a decade as part of an attempt to avoid a first-ever government default. The president and Republicans agreed to create a fallback of that much in across-the-board cuts, designed to be so unpalatable that it would virtually assure the panel struck a deal.
The Supercommittee dissolved in disagreement, though. And while Obama and Republicans agreed to a two-month delay last January, there was no bipartisan negotiation in recent days to prevent the first installment of the cuts from taking effect.
It isn't clear how long they will last.
Of particular concern to lawmakers in both parties is a lack of flexibility in the allocation of cuts due to take effect over the next few months. That problem will ease beginning with the new budget year on Oct. 1, when Congress and the White House will be able to negotiate changes in the way the reductions are made.
For his part, Obama suggested he was content to leave them in place until Republicans change their minds about raising taxes by closing loopholes.
"If Congress comes to its senses a week from now, a month from now, three months from now, then there's a lot of open running room there for us to grow our economy much more quickly and to advance the agenda of the American people dramatically," he said.
"So this is a temporary stop on what I believe is the long-term, outstanding prospect for American growth and greatness."
But Republicans say they are on solid political ground. At a retreat in January in Williamsburg, Va., GOP House members reversed course and decided to approve a debt limit increase without demanding cuts. They also agreed not to provoke a government shutdown, another traditional pressure point, as leverage to force Obama and Democrats to accept savings in benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Obama has said repeatedly he's willing to include benefit programs in deficit-cutting legislation -- as long as more tax revenue is part of the deal.
"I am prepared to do hard things and to push my Democratic friends to do hard things," he said at the White House on Friday.
Republicans speak dismissively of such pledges, saying that in earlier negotiations, the president has never been willing to close a deal with the type of changes he often says he will accept.