Liberals Very Vexed by Federal Pay Freeze

Boy, are they unhappy with the president

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On Monday we brought you the first reactions to President Obama's proposed federal pay freeze. Left-leaning commentators were pretty skeptical to begin with. In the past day, though, that skepticism has morphed into active disdain. Given both sides' agreement that it's a pretty modest proposal, the unanimity of progressive outrage is striking. Since many bloggers are saying the same thing--that the pay freeze is an unconditional and ineffective concession--here's just a small sample of the liberal caterwauling, with a few conservative ideas on the proposal tossed in.

  • 'Little Budgetary Upside,' summarizes Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler, getting qutoes from CAP expert Michael Linden, and "risks driving away valuable civil servants."
  • Little Political Upside  "If it were the case that political messaging gambits had an appreciable impact on election outcomes, this would be a smart political move," writes Matthew Yglesias at CAP publication Think Progress. "In the real world, however, they don't and the real question is how does this impact the macroeconomy." This proposal isn't all that harmful, but if the money saved went to job stimulus programs that would be much better. In other words, Yglesias is one of the ones, along with Steve Benen, wishing there were signs this freeze was part of a bargain, rather than a simple concession. Meanwhile, Newsweek's Ben Adler chronicles the way small concessions have won Obama nothing (like on offshore drilling), and Mother Jones's Kevin Drum agrees:
On a substantive level, it's far too small to have any serious effect. On a messaging level, I simply can't believe that anybody is going to care. Obama seems endlessly besotted with the idea that he can use small executive decisions (supporting nuclear power, allowing offshore drilling, freezing federal pay, etc.) as a way of convincing the electorate that he's really a moderate, but there's no evidence that suggests this stuff has even the slightest impact. And it's certainly not going to make a dent on the Republican caucus in Congress.
  • What Was He Thinking?  The New Republic's Jonathan Bernstein does think messaging matters, disagreeing with Yglesias. But he says "this particular gambit ... seems quite unlikely to succeed." Why? "Hardly anyone actually cares about budget deficits, and one group of people--federal employees (and their families, and perhaps their friends) do care intensely about federal employee pay." Meanwhile, The Washington Post's Greg Sargent finds clues in Obama's remarks that "he views this move as a preemptive strike against Republicans in the war for the moral high ground over who really cares about the deficit," while finding similar clues in Republican Eric Cantor's response that "Republicans are simply pointing to this as proof that Obama agrees with their interpretation of the elections and in response is now willing to follow their script."
  • Dissent: Ways This Could Be Good  Ezra Klein plays devil's advocate, providing one scenario in which "this is a smart way to protect the federal workforce," heading off Republican plans to pass more radical measures. Meanwhile, at Outside the Beltway, James Joyner thinks "this was a brilliant political move by Obama ... a page right out of Bill Clinton's playbook:  Take a wildly popular Republican policy plank that you’ll have to give up in negotiations anyway, boldly announce it as your own, and get credit not only for the popular policy but for working with the opposition party."
  • The Conservative Debate: Is This Triangulation?  Triangulation, explain Politico's Jonathan Allen and Jake Sherman is "a reference to President Bill Clinton's practice of calibrating positions to distance him from both the political and left and the political right." They think Obama might be adopting this strategy. Conservative Ed Morrissey at Hot Air isn't so sure, pointing out that this is a pretty weak proposal, and that Obama may well shrink from triangulation when it comes to serious backlash among his supporters, including in the unions. Rich Lowry at National Review, on the other hand, thinks triangulation likely:
He's going to triangulate. How much is the question. His proposal today for a federal pay freeze is a move to the center in a decidedly minor key. But it's also relatively painless. If he finds a half-dozen of these kind of moves, he might soften his image as a partisan liberal a bit. Not enough, though, which is why I think he's going to have to come up with some sort of big proposal for not terribly credible budget reductions. Say, a 10-year plan that generates a fairly large number for savings over that period, but that backloads most of it to year 6 and beyond, when he’ll no longer be in office even if reelected.
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