President Obama’s unilateral decision to suspend federal pay hikes for two years primarily targets a federal workforce that has a higher percentage of African-Americans, Latinos, other racial minorities and disabled workers than the private sector. In other words, Obama has attacked a key component of the Democratic Party’s political base. Meanwhile, Republicans are adamant about protecting tax breaks for their own base of those annually earning over $250,000, and never in the presidency of George W. Bush did he take unilateral action that primarily hurt the finances of key Republican constituencies. Even Obama’s most steadfast defenders will have a hard time rationalizing this action, which now gives private sector employers “cover” for demanding pay freezes for their workers as well.
I’ve acknowledged that my upbeat 2008 assessments of Barack Obama’s political skills have proved way wrong. But after his decision to freeze federal salaries – not as part of any broader budget and tax deal, but unilaterally – it’s clear that the President is far more politically clueless than previously thought.
Accepting Republican Framing
A President who won election by brilliantly framing issues now accepts Republican framing on almost every issue. This is true on Afghanistan, the budget deficit and now to the notion that federal employees earn too much money and need to be those first targeted for economic pain.
Imagine, if you can bear it, what Obama’s reaction would have been to John McCain offering such a proposal during the 2008 campaign. Obama would have attacked McCain for “punishing working people” while “protecting the wealthy” at every campaign stop, and would not have changed the subject until McCain withdrew the plan.
Those were the days when we couldn’t wait for Obama to take his framing skills to the White House. But those days seem like long ago.
We now have a Democratic President who talks more about the deficit than unemployment, and who bypasses a powerful message of Republicans protecting tax breaks for millionaires to shift the news cycle to freezing wages for federal workers.
Wasn’t David Plouffe supposed to prevent such framing errors?
Barack Obama has just done more to make the case that federal employees are well compensated, if not overpaid, than any Republican.
And good luck for unionized and non-unionized private sector workers when it comes to seeking pay hikes; employers will simply say that what’s good for federal workers should be fine for them.
And if workers contest this, employers will say that their argument is with the President.
Obama’s Unilateral Conservatism
While Obama’s progressive agenda has been hampered by Republican obstructionism, his record when acting unilaterally is quite conservative. This includes such major decisions as escalating a costly and pointless Afghanistan war, unilaterally creating a budget deficit commission and putting a Republican conservative and Democratic neoliberal in charge, and now the federal pay freeze.
Obama did finally make (under strong AFL-CIO pressure) pro-union recess appointments to the NLRB, and unilaterally appointed progressive Elizabeth Warren, but the once widely shared notion that left to his own devices he would be a solid progressive is no longer credible.
Lacking the political will or confidence to fight for progressive policies, Obama seems more content than ever to hone an image of national mediator. Obama may see announcing a federal worker wage hike in exchange for no Republican concessions as part of this mediator role, but it is certainly not what federal employees, the middle-class and progressives thought they were getting when they backed Obama’s drive to the Democratic nomination and then to the White House.
Randy Shaw's Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century is now available in paperback.