Paul Krugman / Syndicated Columnist
Obama's federal pay freeze is deficit-reduction theater
By making the announcement to freeze pay for federal workers, writes Paul Krugman, President Obama effectively conceded the policy argument to the very people who are seeking to destroy him. America's long-run deficit problem has nothing at all to do with overpaid federal workers.
After the Democratic "shellacking" in the midterm elections, everyone wondered how President Barack Obama would respond. Would he show what he was made of? Would he stand firm for the values he believes in, even in the face of political adversity?
On Monday, we got the answer: He announced a pay freeze for federal workers. This was an announcement that had it all. It was transparently cynical; it was trivial in scale, but misguided in direction; and by making the announcement, Obama effectively conceded the policy argument to the very people who are seeking — successfully, it seems — to destroy him.
So I guess we are, in fact, seeing what Obama is made of.
About that pay freeze: The president likes to talk about "teachable moments." Well, in this case he seems eager to teach Americans something false.
The truth is that America's long-run deficit problem has nothing at all to do with overpaid federal workers. For one thing, those workers aren't overpaid. Federal salaries are, on average, somewhat less than those of private-sector workers with equivalent qualifications. And, anyway, employee pay is only a small fraction of federal expenses; even cutting the payroll in half would reduce total spending less than 3 percent.
So freezing federal pay is cynical deficit-reduction theater. It's a (literally) cheap trick that only sounds impressive to people who don't know anything about budget realities. The actual savings, about $5 billion over two years, are chump change given the scale of the deficit.
Anyway, slashing federal spending at a time when the economy is depressed is exactly the wrong thing to do. Just ask Federal Reserve officials, who have lately been more or less pleading for some help in their efforts to promote faster job growth.
Meanwhile, there's a real deficit issue on the table: whether tax cuts for the wealthy will, as Republicans demand, be extended. Just as a reminder, over the next 75 years the cost of making those tax cuts permanent would be roughly equal to the entire expected financial shortfall of Social Security. Obama's pay ploy might have been justified if he had used the announcement of a freeze as an occasion to take a strong stand against Republican demands — to declare that at a time when deficits are an important issue, tax breaks for the wealthiest aren't acceptable.
But he didn't. Instead, he apparently intended the pay-freeze announcement as a peace gesture to Republicans the day before a bipartisan summit. At that meeting, Obama, who has faced two years of complete scorched-earth opposition, declared that he had failed to reach out sufficiently to his implacable enemies. He did not, as far as anyone knows, wear a sign on his back saying "Kick me," although he might as well have.
There were no comparable gestures from the other side. Instead, Senate Republicans declared that none of the rest of the legislation on the table — legislation that includes such things as a strategic arms treaty that's vital to national security — would be acted on until the tax-cut issue was resolved, presumably on their terms.
It's hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Obama's measure — that they're calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it's also hard to escape the impression that they're right.
The real question is what Obama and his inner circle are thinking. Do they really believe, after all this time, that gestures of appeasement to the GOP will elicit a good-faith response?
What's even more puzzling is the apparent indifference of the Obama team to the effect of such gestures on their supporters.
Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse — a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.
So what are Democrats to do? The answer, increasingly, seems to be that they'll have to strike out on their own. In particular, Democrats in Congress still have the ability to put their opponents on the spot — as they did on Thursday when they forced a vote on extending middle-class tax cuts, putting Republicans in the awkward position of voting against the middle class to safeguard tax cuts for the rich.
It would be much easier, of course, for Democrats to draw a line if Obama would do his part. But all indications are that the party will have to look elsewhere for the leadership it needs.
Paul Krugman is a regular columnist for The New York Times.