I have a suggestion for President Obama, who needs to cheer people up or watch his political fortunes continue to wither. Speaking recently to workers in Ohio, he said, “I believe government should be lean; government should be efficient.” This is not a credo Mr. Obama has embraced since taking office (just ask any red-blooded Republican). However, it’s never too late to tack in a new direction.
Americans don’t want big government; they don’t want small government. They want good government. Most people don’t know or care exactly how large the budget is – few can comprehend trillions of dollars – but they do want their money spent wisely. Disgust over the stimulus package isn’t focused on the $787 billion price tag; it’s centered on how millions of dollars have been frittered away on idiotic projects like studying exotic ants on Indian Ocean islands or an attempt to create a joke-telling computer.
Since President Obama can’t discuss his (mis)fortunes without dragging his predecessor into the conversation, it’s worth remembering that GW’s approval rating first dipped below 40 in the months following the Katrina disaster. That was more than two years after we invaded Iraq. The chaos of New Orleans showed the Bush administration to be clumsy and wrong-footed, and damaged his presidency immeasurably.
Asian Carp czar (I am not making this up.)
It’s easy to champion efficiency in government; how might President Obama tackle such a goal? The first step would be to hire an Efficiency Czar. This is a familiar tactic for the president, who has stuffed his administration with any number of faux-Muscovite executives. We’ve had car czars and drug czars, border czars and copyright czars. Most recently Mr. Obama added an Asian carp czar (I am not making this up.) Surely there is room yet in those overcrowded White House corridors for an Efficiency Czar.
Naturally, the first responsibility of that appointee would be to figure out what the heck all the other czars are doing, because certainly the public has no idea. The notion of bringing in hired guns to oversee various bureaucracies is reasonable, as long as they are not tripping over one another. For example, how does the mortgage czar interact with the FHA, the Fed, Fannie and Freddie and the other groups responsible for overseeing our home-lending activities? (Given the list, we may actually need a ringleader in this arena.) The Efficiency Czar should assess who is succeeding and who is not (in the latter category may fall the Sudan czar, tragically, and the stimulus accountability czar, for instance) and should terminate those deemed to be wasting the taxpayers’ money.
The Efficiency Czar would next help the president act like a CEO. It has been oft lamented that this administration is short on senior business people in its ranks. In my view, that has been a major handicap for the president. A tough and seasoned CEO might have provided an effective bridge to the now-hostile business community, and could have given him some important management pointers. For instance, when a company gets into trouble, what does the CEO do? He calls in his direct reports and issues an ultimatum: Cut costs 5 percent. What could Obama do to regain the upper hand with Congress? Call in all the agency heads and all the czars, and tell them to cut costs by 5 percent. Think how Americans would cheer this initiative. Yes, Congress would resist. The people are in a mood to insist.
It has been argued that since Social Security and Medicare account for such a substantial part of future projected deficits, there is no point in trying to cut costs elsewhere. The case is that unless we corral these bloated entitlements programs, no other penny-pinching is worthwhile. Hogwash! You can’t tell me there isn’t sufficient mush in the $3.7 trillion federal budget (of which Social Security and Medicare account for $1.2 trillion) to reward a concerted effort to rein in waste. Just one example: While surfing Recovery.gov (it’s one of my “favorites”), I came across the Railroad Retirement Board, a 1930s creation set up to oversee benefits for rail workers. Naturally, I wondered why we needed this agency, which has been allotted $110 million for administrative expenses in the fiscal year 2011 budget, to serve fewer than 600,000 retirees and which duplicates work done by the Social Security Agency and other offices. The answer is – we don’t.
There are hundreds of overlapping agencies and offices within the federal government. Someone needs to sort out the organizational cobwebs. These are not glamorous undertakings, but they might help restore public confidence in our government, and in our president. If President Obama doesn’t embrace such initiatives, the Republicans may well choose as their candidate in 2012 Mitch Daniels, or another governor who has proven his ability to efficiently manage a state, and a budget. Given a choice, with all the concerns about runaway spending, the American people could well choose prudence over glamour.