Donald Lambro

In a move to regain his relevance and perhaps his former popularity, President Obama tackled his multitrillion-dollar budget deficit Monday with a feeble federal payroll freeze that has the potential to save a puny $5 billion.

Still recovering from the midterm elections "shellacking" the voters dealt him and the Democrats in Congress, Obama and his advisers have been searching frantically for a strategy to get him back in the game and save his threatened presidency.

But the impotent two-year freeze, one of several initiatives he will be announcing to deal with runaway spending, fell with a thud among Democrats on Capitol Hill, angered federal employee unions in his party's base who felt betrayed, and made the effort to battle a $2.7 trillion deficit monster of his own making look utterly futile.

Obama's 2009 and 2010 deficits and skyrocketing debt that, if they continue, will push yearly interest payments to more than $1 trillion in 2020, were one of the voters' biggest election-year complaints.

Republicans gave the move muted praise, though many newly elected tea-party warriors dismissed Obama's announcement as a cosmetic gimmick that won't really curb spending.

Indeed, it was a transparent maneuver timed to show that he is concerned with bringing down the government's mounting $14 trillion debt, just as the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is about to unveil their more ambitious debt-reducing plan this week. Among the reforms: freezing civilian federal payrolls for three years.

"The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice, and that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government," Obama said.

But the American people can add two and two, and they know the difference between $2.7 trillion in new debt and a minuscule $2 billion a year in savings that barely scratches the surface, especially when the deficit is expected to grow by an additional $1 trillion next year and probably the year after that.

This is what passes for fiscal progress at the White House where 10 percent unemployment is now considered the "new normal."

"It's a start," was the best that former Wyoming senator Alan K. Simpson, co-chairman of the commission, could say about it.

Obama's union allies were not so polite. "Two unfunded wars, a stock-market collapse and trying to solve the deficit by going after working people's salary -- I just expected more from the Obama administration," said John Gage, head of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Other union leaders are mobilizing to have the Democrats in this lame-duck Congress reject the budget freeze before the end of the month.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.