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Obama's Pay Freeze Gets the Cold Shoulder

Good roundup of policy reaction to Barack Obama's executive pay freeze from Brian Beutler here (and do check out Beutler's new blog at TPM), and good comments from Matt Yglesias, plus a suggestion from John Sides.

I'll stick to the politics. Yglesias says that it won't work:

100 percent understand the politics behind the President getting behind the idea of a freeze in federal civilian pay. If it were the case that political messaging gambits had an appreciable impact on election outcomes, this would be a smart political move. In the real world, however, they don’t and the real question is how does this impact the macroeconomy.

I think this takes what we know a little too far. Messaging, and campaigning in general, aren't as important as the economy, but you'll note that I usually say that such things only matter "on the margins." And yet, the 2000 presidential election was obviously won on the margins; one can argue that in some or all of the 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004 elections, the presidency was won on the margins. The same is true about House and Senate elections.

Moreover, there's good reason to believe that there are rarely big gaps between the effects of Democratic and Republican electioneering (including messaging), because both parties and their candidates try hard to do well in those areas. If one side abdicates, "the margins" may get a bit less marginal. So while I'd certainly recommend simply as a matter of electoral politics that presidents place a higher priority on economic growth than on spin, that's not the same thing as saying that they should ignore spin. Plenty of stuff that only matters on the margins is still worth doing.

This particular gambit, however, seems quite unlikely to succeed. That's because 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. Indeed, that's the case with just about all federal spending; cutting spending will at best get very mild approval from mass publics, but will get intense disapproval from the affected constituency.

So unless there's another shoe somewhere (certainly doesn't appear to be the case, but one never knows), the federal pay freeze certainly looks like a loser—again, thinking only about electoral politics.

On the substance, my guess is that Democrats should do what they can to strengthen the capacity of the federal government to actually do the many things Democrats want it to do, and the (minor, but still real) damage the freeze will do to the federal workforce is far more important than anything else. If the politics worked, I'd probably say it's a good move anyway; as I've said before, my basic sense is that if the White House gets the politics right, the policy will follow. Given that I don't think it makes any sense at all on a political level, it's hard not to call this one a full-out blunder by Obama.