Sure his ratings are still through the roof. But if he can't get his own cabinet to go along with his latest budget proposal, he will go down as just another tax-and-spend liberal. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
After last week’s tea party tax protests, President Obama acknowledged “a confidence gap, when it comes to the American people. And we’ve got to earn their trust.”
Democrats have been slapped with the tax-and-spend-liberal label for decades—and candidate Obama spent much time on the campaign trail trying to distance himself from that legacy. “When I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely,” he promised, offering assurance to the moderate majority of Americans that his would be an administration dedicated to fiscal responsibility.
Of course, all that was before the financial crisis and neo-Keynesian Kool-Aid started to be passed around Capitol Hill, with congressmen chugging it by the billions as the deficit ballooned.
The political skirmish over the drop-in-the-bucket of $100 million is just a preamble to a much bigger deficit-reduction fight to come—President Obama’s stated desire to pull a Nixon-in-China and reform entitlement spending.
This week, President Obama tried to square his young administration’s record with his campaign rhetoric by announcing a commitment to cut $100 million dollars in wasteful spending at his first Cabinet meeting.
Instead of receiving financial reformer accolades, the proposal was met with ridicule from the right and left, best symbolized by the smug headline on the Heritage Foundation’s blog: “ Not Even Krugman is Buying Obama’s ‘Spending Cut.’”
Harvard economist Greg Mankiw created an instant classic of political comparison, by rationalizing that the equivalent would be an average American family tackling a $34,000 budget shortfall by cutting back on one cup of Starbucks’ coffee a year.
But while the ill-advised benchmark of $100 million set the president up for a political piñata news cycle by seriously underestimating the intelligence of the American people, the “waste, fraud and abuse” budget-cutting exercise is important—if insufficient.
It’s not too late to demonstrate President Obama’s seriousness of purpose—by stating that his administration’s agencies will be expected to come up with $100 million in cuts each quarter—totaling $1.6 billion by the end of his first term.
That’s not going to shrink the deficit on its own, but it will show a consistent management commitment that backs up the president’s own acknowledgement: “None of these things alone are going to make a difference. But cumulatively, they make an extraordinary difference because they start setting a tone ... $100 million there, $100 million here—pretty soon, even here in Washington, it adds up to real money.”
Obama is far from the first to campaign on cutting waste from the federal government. Presidents have made the same claims for over 100 years, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt’s Keep Commission in 1905. This was continued by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower’s Hoover Commissions, Reagan’s Grace Commission, and President Clinton’s Reinventing Government effort, which ultimately saved taxpayers $118 billion. Seen against this most recent benchmark, President Obama’s proposed $100 million in savings seems puny.
But rather than simply playing gotcha politics, Republicans should remember that their party’s former congressional standard-bearer, Tom DeLay, proclaimed victory in the war against government waste in 2005, saying that there was very little fat left to cut from the federal budget: “after 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared it down pretty good.”
In fact, the Bush administration’s own running tally of government (in)efficiency—the OMB’s Program Assessment Rating Tool—found that of the 977 programs monitored, 25 performing were graded as “Not Performing,” while an additional 28 performing were deemed as merely “Adequate.” All remained funded by the Republican Congress.
Moreover, a 2005 report by Heritage Foundation economist Brian Riedl found that there were 342 economic development programs, 130 programs serving at-risk youth, 72 clean-water programs, and 27 teen-pregnancy programs. Redundancies were rampant while non-defense discretionary spending jumped 8.2 percent during President Bush’s first three years in office, exceeding even Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Not too many conservatives were screaming about “socialism” then—partisan loyalty trumped principle.
The bottom line is that there is always plenty of waste, fraud, and abuse to cut from the federal government—it is and should be a constant effort, especially against the tsunami of federal TARP and stimulus spending, where new scandals will inevitably emerge. There will be new opportunities as well—40 percent of nonessential government employees are scheduled to retire in the next 10 years, many of whom can be replaced with e-government technology, while improving the delivery of services.
The political skirmish over the drop-in-the-bucket of $100 million is just a preamble to a much bigger deficit-reduction fight to come—President Obama’s stated desire to pull a Nixon-in-China and reform entitlement spending. So this is just a pop-quiz compared to that final exam on the financial-responsibility front. Passing that test will require the Obama administration work with centrist Democrats as well as Republicans to rein in the long-term deficit and restore a sense of generational responsibility to our politics.
The moderate majority of Americans don’t care about the competing ideologies of liberal stimulus spending or conservative trickle-down economics—they want our immediate problems solved, followed by a return to policies of financial responsibility that both parties have abandoned. A recent USA Today poll found that 85 percent of Americans were comfortable with an expanded government role to deal with the financial crisis, but by a margin of 3 to 1 they want to see government cut back when the crisis recedes. This is not a blank check for the Obama administration or liberal House Democrats.
The real test for President Obama will be to match the rhetoric of financial responsibility with the hard work of achieving a long-term track record on that front. Sincere allies of that effort will need to encourage follow-through, building new coalitions across the political aisle while remembering not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Cutting $100 million is just a small symbolic first step in the right direction.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter for then-Mayor Giuliani.