Obama Asks Agency Heads For Budget Cuts
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. President Barack Obama returned late yesterday from a second overseas trip of the month, but he wasted no time getting back to work today. Mr. Obama convened the first formal cabinet meeting of his administration. And he asked all of his cabinet secretaries to do a little belt tightening.
President BARACK OBAMA: One of the things - messages that I delivered today to all members of the cabinet was, as well as you've already done, you're going to have to do more.
NORRIS: And by doing more he means coming up with $100 million worth of cuts from the federal budget. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House to talk about today's meeting. Mara, let's start with the basics. Isn't this a little late for the first cabinet meeting?
MARA LIASSON: Well, it is the first full cabinet meeting with everyone, except for Kathleen Sebelius, the HHS secretary, Health and Human Services secretary, who will be confirmed tomorrow. But the fact is that many cabinet members have been up for many, many meetings at the White House. So it isn't really late for a first cabinet meeting.
And, also, this is not an administration that is going to govern by having the full cabinet in a room. The president has really consolidated power inside the White House. He's got a lot of these interagency coordinators, or czars, inside the White House. He's got an energy czar. And he has someone who's going to coordinate health care reform. So I don't really think that there's any problem that he hasn't convened the full cabinet until now.
NORRIS: And it was a full room. The president seems to be making a statement, actually, quite a few statements with the people he's chosen to serve in his cabinet.
LIASSON: That's true. I mean, this is a diverse cabinet. It is only, however, a little bit more diverse than the cabinets of President Clinton and President George W. Bush. Actually, they each had seven women and minorities, and Obama has 10. So he certainly has the most diverse cabinet. But the fact that that's not huge news really shows us - shows you how much progress we've made.
NORRIS: And rounding it out not just with secretaries, but as you mentioned, czars, as well, sort of layering the cabinet.
LIASSON: That's right.
NORRIS: Now, let's talk about Obama's - Mr. Obama's stated objective for this meeting. And Mara, put these numbers in context for us. Given all the big numbers that we've been throwing around, $100 million at this point doesn't seem like all that much.
LIASSON: No, it really doesn't. It's really easy to make fun of, actually. I mean, $100 million, somebody pointed out, is only about three times A-Rod's salary. And when he mentioned the specific things that add up to 100 million, well, it's, you know, getting the Veterans Affairs Department to use videoconferencing instead of in-person conferences. It's getting the Department of Homeland Security to purchase office supplies in bulk instead of individually. So it's not a big number.
But as President Obama said today, look, line-by-line, page-by-page, $100 million here, $100 million there, pretty soon, even in Washington it adds up to real money. And this is really symbolic more than anything else. He wants to address the populist anger out there that's worried about the size of government, that thinks all he's doing is spending and running up the deficit. He promised in the campaign to go through the budget line-by-line to get rid of inefficiencies and wasteful spending, and this is a down payment on that.
NORRIS: And he takes some ribbing for this, but I'm sure there are a lot of people who are thinking $100 million still sounds like a lot to me. Now, Mara, there is a curiosity here also that couldn't the administration try to achieve this goal by taking on entitlements, rather than chipping away at the edges?
LIASSON: Well, that's true. And entitlement reform is the big way that you reduce the structural deficit. And the president even today said that these savings by themselves that he's identified today isn't going to solve the long-term fiscal problems.
He mentions in every speech how serious he is about real entitlement reform, but I don't think you're going to see the White House making a big effort on that until after the next congressional elections. It's so politically explosive and so hard to do.
NORRIS: Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
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