President Obama proposed on Monday to freeze pay for federal civilian employees for two years. Purely coincidentally, of course, he was scheduled to meet with congressional Republicans the next day.
Obama presented his decision as an early skirmish, heroically won, in his epic quest to vanquish the federal budget deficit.
"I did not reach this decision easily," he said. "This is not just a line item on a federal ledger. These are people's lives."
People's lives? It's a temporary freeze in pay, not an execution. No one's pay will even be cut. It simply won't rise for two years. And the people whose pay is being frozen have, on average, seen substantially larger pay increases than their private-sector counterparts in recent years.
USA Today reported last year that in the first 18 months of the recession, federal employee pay rose 6.6 percent, while private-sector pay rose 3.9 percent. More recently, this month USA Today reported that the number of federal workers who earn at least $150,000 a year has doubled since President Obama took office.
The president is hardly taking bread from the dust-covered fingers of starving children. But you wouldn't know it from the reaction of left-wing groups.
"We think that is a terrible idea. We should be raising wages," said John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute. "It is unclear why the president would want to do this."
On the contrary, nothing could be clearer. The president wants to create the perception that he's concerned about the deficit and willing to cut federal spending to shrink it. He also wanted to enter today's talks with GOP leaders with a cost-cutting item on the table for which he could take credit. But this olive branch has thorns. In his press release announcing the proposal, the president blamed the deficit and the recession on Republicans.
"Because of the irresponsibility of the past decade, the President inherited a $1.3 trillion projected deficit upon taking office and an economic crisis that threatened to put the nation into a second Great Depression," read the press release.
So much for bipartisanship, at least as average people understand the term. To Obama, though, this is bipartisanship. It fits his standard pattern: Propose a concession so small it isn't really a concession, offer it with barbs attached, then beat the opposition to death with it when they demand something more substantial before giving up the major concession asked in return.
At $5 billion, Obama's proposed pay freeze is a grain of sand in the ocean that is the $1.3 trillion federal deficit. Republicans should be pleased that the president has offered it, but they should make a point of noting its size relative to the mass of the problem that will remain even if it passes Congress.
To be clear, its size doesn't make it a foolish pursuit. Freezing federal civilian pay is as good an idea now as it was when Republicans made it part of the Pledge to America this past summer. It was a good idea all the way back when Obama included a 1.4 percent pay increase in his 2011 budget.
Thanks to this month's elections, Obama has turned 180 degrees on the issue of federal employee pay. That's good. But it's too early to call it encouraging. We've seen this trick before. On health care reform, Obama threw in a token business tax credit and claimed to have compromised by including business tax cuts. On the stimulus, Obama also included some small tax cuts and claimed to have been mystified when Republicans -- who, you know, like tax cuts -- didn't endorse it.
But those small bones tossed to Republicans were only for show. Obama never intended to meet Republicans in the middle, or even at, say, the 10 yard line. He never offered to significantly scale back his major initiatives. Like everything with this president, it's all about the showmanship, not the substance.
This offer is no different. Republicans should thank the president, note how much ground is left to cover, and move on as if nothing significant has happened. Because nothing significant has.