Jonathan Chait

The Federal Pay Freeze Gimmick

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I get the politics behind the Obama administration's plan to freeze federal pay. The public thinks government should trim back during bad times, and while the public is wrong, sometimes you have to cater to public prejudices, especially when the cost is minimal.

I'm just not sure the politics will actually work so neatly. A policy like that only works through the context in which it is communicated to the public. And the context will be that liberals and moderates dismiss because it's a stupid policy, and conservatives attack it because they're partisan Republicans. The end result will be Obama proposing a policy initiative that's mildly harmful and panned by all sides.

There's a certain class of moderate Democratic strategist that thinks symbolic moves like this brilliantly capture the center, but I'm not sure it really works like that. Instead, it will be reported on the evening news, with a complaining comment from a liberal, a sneering comment from a conservative, and a dismissive comment from a Centrist Budget Wonk who says you have to cut entitlement spending. If you're going to do something like this, at least do it during the State of the Union address so you can get the message out unfiltered.

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