WASHINGTON -- Days after several hundred thousand angry Americans rallied to protest President Obama's big-spending agenda, he asked his Cabinet to find ways to cut $100 million from the budget.
It was a defensive, seemingly symbolic move to blunt the political impact of last week's nationwide April 15 "tea party" rallies that drew nearly 400,000 Americans to some 300 events from Bakersfield, Calif., to Atlanta, Ga., where more than 15,000 people showed up.
The proposed budget cuts represented a paltry sum of money that paled in comparison to Obama's nearly $4 trillion budget that spends $100 million every 13.5 minutes. It comes out to one-twentieth of 1 percent of the $192.3 billion budget deficit for the month of March alone.
Harvard economist Greg Mankiw crunched Obama's theoretical savings another way: $100 million represents .003 percent of $3.5 trillion.
The White House's outside political apparatus bashed the tax rallies, claiming they were the work of lobbying groups in Washington. But the truth is that the size, energy and spontaneity of the crowds, organized by local taxpayers who had never done anything like this before, shook the White House.
Obama strategists feared -- as some independent analysts concluded -- that they could be part of a fast-growing movement in the country who think government is getting too big, spending is out of control, and taxes are too high. These were concerned Americans reacting to Obama's spending spree in just the last two months that included a $410 billion omnibus spending bill, an $800 billion economic stimulus and a $3.5 trillion budget for next year.
"What's most striking about the tea-party movement is that most of the organizers haven't ever organized, or even participated, in a protest rally before. General disgust has drawn a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena, and they are already planning for political action," wrote Glenn Harlan Reynolds at the Wall Street Journal Online.
"It's not a big Republican effort. It's a big popular effort. But a mass movement of ordinary people who don't feel their voices are being heard doesn't bode well for the party that positioned itself as the organ of hope and change," he reported last week.
Indeed, at Monday's Cabinet meeting, Obama spoke ominously of "a confidence gap, when it comes to the American people ... And we've got to earn their trust."
There are plenty of places in the government's vast bureaucracy to cut -- not just $100 million but several hundred billion dollars in ineffective and unaffordable programs. A good place to start would be the funds already appropriated for the economic-recovery bill, only a portion of which will be spent this year.
Already, reports are coming in of marginal spending projects that will create few, if any, permanent jobs. In Pawtucket, R.I., they plan to spend $550,000 in stimulus money to build a skateboard park at a local school. There are bike racks being installed in Washington, D.C., $57 million in studies in Ohio of dubious need, $500,000 for fish food in Missouri, $1.5 million for a "streetscape improvement around a casino" in Michigan and $3.8 million to extend an "ARTWalk" in Rochester, N.Y.
The administration in the last couple of weeks has conceded that there are "glimmers of hope" that the economy is in the early stages of turning around sooner than the pessimists have predicted. Several big banks have reported profits, housing sales have begun showing signs of life, and the number of home mortgages and mortgage refinances has crept upward. If these and other signs of recovery continue to improve, there are real questions about whether the rest of the stimulus funds should be repealed or at least curtailed before year's end.
Meantime, Republicans are trying to figure out how they can tap into the political energy and passion that exploded across the nation last week, or whether it is a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon.
Activists who were part of the tea parties that drew large numbers of ordinary, non-activist, middle-class Americans told me that this movement is not going away.
"This movement has legs, no question about it. The sheer number of people who turned out for something like this, without much promotion or organization, was awesome," said Jim Sibold, former GOP chairman of Georgia's DeKalb County. There is talk of a massive march on Washington in early October when the battle over Obama's budget could be in full fury.
"There's been a revolution on taxes and spending, and it's just getting started. This is an opportunity for the Republican party or an opportunity lost, depending on how quickly they act," GOP campaign strategist John Brabender told me.
Clearly, the White House sensed this, too. Thus, Obama's anemic effort for additional spending cuts this week. But the independent-minded people who turned out for last week's tax-day rallies can add, and they know the difference between millions, billions and trillions.
"This is ultimately about independents and winning over a majority of them, and we are a long way from doing this right now," said former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the Republican congressional campaign committee.
To win over this electorate, Republicans have "got to stay on message. There are no silver bullets. It took eight years to drive this party into the ground, and you are not going to turn it around overnight," he said.