Jacob Sullum

Remember President Obama's New Era of Responsibility? It got off to an inauspicious start, with a $787-billion economic stimulus package, a $410-billion appropriations bill, and a record $1.8-trillion budget deficit.

But now Obama wants to signal that he's getting serious about cutting the federal budget. Unfortunately, his plan hinges on the assumption that Americans do not know how to calculate percentages.

Last week, the Obama administration, after going through the budget "line by line," unveiled $17 billion in budget cuts. That amounts to less than 0.5 percent of the president's proposed $3.6-trillion budget for the next fiscal year and less than 2 percent of the projected $1.3-trillion deficit.

On Monday, the White House raised its estimate of the budget deficit for the current fiscal year from $1.75 trillion to $1.84 trillion. The $89-billion correction was more than five times the cuts Obama had proposed four days before.

The president dismissed critics who were unimpressed by his $17 billion in savings as inside-the-Beltway snobs with no understanding of how regular people view things. "In Washington," he told reporters, "I guess that's considered trivial. Outside of Washington, that's still considered a lot of money."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the same rhetorical strategy. "I've said this before, and I'll say it again: $17 billion is a lot of money to people in America," he said. "I understand that it might not be to some people in this town, but that's probably why we're sitting on a $12-trillion American Express bill" -- a reference to the national debt.

This is the sort of populist argument that insults the public's common sense while pretending to flatter it. Yes, $17 billion is a lot of money for an individual, a municipality, even a mid-sized state. But it is emphatically not a lot of money for a federal government that spends trillions of dollars every year. If you had $12,000 in credit card debt and paid off $17 of it, would you feel like you had made significant progress?

"These savings, large and small, add up," the president said. That is literally true; they just don't add up to much.

But wait. The $17 billion in savings Obama touted last week was on top of the cuts he had already ordered his cabinet to find. Last month, saying he was determined to make government "as efficient as possible" and ensure that "every taxpayer dollar is being spent wisely," he instructed department and agency heads to come up with a total of $100 million in savings.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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