-Right-wing politicians have stepped up their assault on government spending. But the latest salvo on the war on government came from an unexpected source: President Obama. His preemptive proposal to freeze non-military federal pay undermines the local economy while achieving little politically.
Home to more than 15 percent of federal workers, D.C. would receive about $750 million less by freezing about 400,000 salaries. This area has suffered less than many other cities despite having the third highest cost of living. Washington—with the most highly educated residents nationwide—draws many people who pursue dreams of public service over better-paid private sector work.
Still, the two-year pay freeze could be worthwhile were it moving us much closer to financial stability or progressive bipartisanship. But it seems to represent only a step back from a message to help the middle class.
The financial impact will be negligible, at $2.5 billion in annual savings. Compare that to what we would save by not extending Bush tax cuts for just the wealthiest two percent ($700 billion over 10 years), cutting a few percent of over $500 billion dollars in defense spending or canceling any of several multi-billion dollar weapons programs. Without the context of a larger effort, the freeze on our country’s largest employer lacks heft.
Nor will it bring bipartisanship. “Can we all just get along?” Rodney King famously asked, after his brutal beating by the Los Angeles police led to citywide riots. President Obama similarly wants cooperation. But major concessions on health care and climate change didn’t bring Republican support, and the freeze proposal drew a one-two punch: Republicans refused to act on legislation before addressing tax cuts, then voted to block them unless $1 million earners were included.
Clearly the answer to Rodney King’s question for President Obama is: “We just can’t.” Republicans have sold a broad, misguided message of antigovernment, anti-business and anti-growth to Congress and backed it up with their legislative votes. Now they say, in so many words, that our job-killing city is unfairly rich at the expense of the middle class.
Corporations brought money to the Tea Party and to conservative candidates to amplify such a message. Massive and growing corporate donations are aimed at promoting an unfair and unsustainable status quo: sacrificing a middle-class ravaged by recession, stagnating wages, and high fees to corporations and the rich.
At his best, Obama championed the priorities of most Americans. His emphasis on the commonality of federal government and middle class interests energized his campaign and his presidency.
Soaring rhetoric on common sense injustices in health care and financial services resonated with the American population, as did calls for investment in clean energy and infrastructure. And while the legislative process has been messy and marked by premature concessions, he’s racked up significant wins for most Americans through the stimulus, health care and financial reform.
But his efforts drew the ire of cash cow corporations highly dependent on old products and technologies. Rather than investing in development of the next generation of sustainable, innovative and globally competitive products, these companies spend little in research, stockpile cash and rack up profits.
These profits have come increasingly from deceptive or illegal practices, such as violating safety regulations, downplaying health risks, and presenting consumers with comprehensive solutions and then later surprising them with extra hundreds of dollars on monthly bills. The result is a middle-class wracked by foreclosures, obesity, shrinking savings and retirement, and rising poverty levels.
Despite a broad anti-government message polling well, most Americans support initiatives like health care protections, limited credit card fees, and continued unemployment benefits.
Obama should return to his impassioned rhetoric emphasizing the consistency of federal government and middle class interests. He should champion the heroes in the government (including the 45 percent in public health care) and other federal accomplishments. He should point out clear failures and shortsightedness of corporations and offer regulation and investment to improve it. He should hold fast on tax cuts, forcing Republicans to explain why they support millionaires over popular measures like extending unemployment insurance and continuing START.
“You lose nothing when fighting for a cause,” said Muhammad Ali. “In my mind, the losers are those who don’t have a cause they care about.”
The president would do well to heed this legendary fighter’s advice. Obama should abandon a proposal wrong for our city and our country, and once again embrace the message of our government and the middle class.