President Obama failed a major test of leadership in his State of the Union address this week. He offered only platitudes and failed policies on job creation and little more on controlling spending. Although the president talked about deficit reduction -- a major concern not just to the American people but to our debt-holders, especially China -- he offered no real plan to accomplish it. His much-touted government spending freeze turns out to be thawing before it begins. The freeze exempts not only defense and homeland security spending, it doesn't even attempt to tackle entitlements -- and it won't begin until next year. If the president were serious about controlling the deficit, he'd order cuts, not an illusionary freeze, and they would begin immediately.
President Obama just isn't much of a chief executive. Having spent some 15 years serving on corporate boards of directors, I've seen the way successful CEOs manage falling revenues and escalating costs: They make necessary cuts or else the company goes broke. They do it by asking their subordinates to come up with plans for reducing costs in their own departments or divisions, often by requiring all divisions to trim their budgets by some percentage. It's bitter medicine, but it's the only one that works.
But across-the-board spending cuts are rare in government. Every Cabinet head has reasons why there is not a penny to be saved in his or her department. That's nonsense. No one can tell me that there are not some programs in every department in the federal government that are wasteful, obsolete, or over-staffed.
If the president were a real leader, he'd be instructing every Cabinet secretary to come up with a list of cuts in his or her department. No one likes to do this, especially in Washington, where the size of your budget is a good indication of your power and influence. But in the real world, when your revenues (or incomes) are shrinking, you don't just say, "Well, I'll keep spending at my current rate for a while and see how that goes."
Of course, the president can't do this alone. Congress would have to go along by trimming appropriations, which they are loath to do, especially if the money the government intends to spend affects their own states or districts. But the president can also veto appropriations that bust his budget, something President Obama threatened he would do, but not very convincingly. He should take a page out of President Reagan's playbook, or President Ford, who vetoed numerous spending bills in his 2.5 years as president.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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