President Obama’s purely symbolic sequester strategy — and why it might work

April 3, 2013

Let's make one thing absolutely clear: President Obama's decision to give back five percent of his salary -- $20,000  -- to highlight the effects of the sequester is sheerly symbolic and an overt act of political theater.

Neither of those facts, however, mean that it won't work.


The reality -- as he regularly acknowledged on the campaign trail in 2012 -- is that President Obama is a wealthy man, made so by the successes of two bestselling autobiographical works published (or re-published) over the past decade. In 2011, Barack and Michelle Obama made $750,000. In 2010, they earned $1.8 million. In 2009, the Obamas made $5.5 million.

In short, this is not someone who needs the $400,000 salary that you get for being president or who is going to feel any hardship by foregoing five percent of his salary in 2013. (Wealth is not unique to Obama when it comes to the men who run for and serve as the nation's chief executive.  George W. Bush was the scion of a very wealthy family.  Mitt Romney was a multimillionaire. John Kerry was one of the wealthiest member of the U.S. Senate.)

But, remember that in politics (and policy) how things look matters.  Politics -- when practiced correctly -- is an artform not unlike theater.  And, Obama's sequester gambit could work quite well in that context.

The problem for those  -- including Obama -- who want the sequester replaced with more targeted cuts in federal spending is that most people in the country have noticed nothing different in their daily lives since the sequester went into effect on March 1. They are vaguely aware that there are real-world impacts from the sequester but for the majority of the country it's out of sight, out of mind.

By taking a voluntary cut in his own pay -- no matter the size or amount -- President Obama is forcing the sequester back into the news and back to the top of peoples' minds, at least for a day or two.

And, what he is clearly hoping is that other Administration figures and other elected officials take his cue to forego some salary and, in so doing, keep the story in the news -- ratcheting up the pressure on those (mostly Republicans) who are just fine with keeping the sequester in place.

That's already happening -- with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich announcing they will take a voluntary five percent pay cut as well. Expect lots more Democrats -- and likely some Republicans -- to follow suit in the coming days.

Will Obama's sequester strategy work?  It depends on how you define "work". It will almost certainly re-direct attention to the sequester, which, in and of itself, is a victory of sorts for the Administration. Whether or not it actually moves Congress and the White House to action to avert some of the sequester's nastier consequences remains to be seen.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · April 3, 2013