The workers Obama abandoned

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By Max Stier
Sunday, January 9, 2011

President Obama, much like John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this month, arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with a promise to reinvigorate faith in our government and to make federal service "cool" again.

But Obama has yet to deliver. With the strain of the economic crisis, the changed political equation in Congress and an unhappy electorate, the response from the president and Capitol Hill has been a federal worker pay freeze, the prospect of a federal hiring moratorium and deep across-the-board budget cuts that could hamper the ability of government employees to effectively carry out the nation's policies and deliver vital services.

We need the president and Congress to pause and think again about where they are headed. They can continue to take the politically expedient road by treating the civil service as an unnecessary cost. Or they can realize, as Kennedy did, that the success or failure of important public policies will depend on an energetic and skilled workforce.

This is true for Obama's signature issues - health care and financial reform - and it is true for intelligence agents fighting terrorism, for our diplomats working for peace and cooperation abroad, for federal workers seeking to protect clean air and water, and for the doctors and nurses taking care of our wounded veterans.

There is a legitimate debate about the size and role of government and what programs should be supported, eliminated or improved as our leaders seek to curb the federal budget deficit. But arbitrarily imposing an across-the-board hiring freeze in the name of saving relatively small sums would be a mistake with the potential to seriously hamper the workforce and degrade government's performance.

Unfortunately, we always learn the hard way. One only has to recall the second-tier status and budget cuts that hobbled the Federal Emergency Management Agency before Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the short staffing and budget reductions at the Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the 2008 financial meltdown; and the lack of offshore oil rig inspectors at the Minerals Management Service before the 2010 Gulf oil disaster to realize what can happen when federal agencies and the workforce are given short shrift.

In President Kennedy's time, public service was synonymous with government service, and it was important enough for him to use his first State of the Union address in January 1961 to urge that "public service be a proud and lively career," and to talk about the "honor" federal employees should feel serving the government "in that hour of our nation's need." JFK's views mirrored those of one of Obama's heroes, Abraham Lincoln, who said in 1854, "The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do well, for themselves."

Today, government service isn't even considered public service by most Americans, partly because successive generations repeatedly have been told by our political leaders that the government is the problem, not part of our collective solution. As a result, the desirability of public service has diminished, trust in government has steadily eroded and federal workers are undervalued.

In 1961, when JFK entered the White House, there was a sense much like today that America was falling behind. The Soviet Union threatened our existence, and the nation confronted many pressing domestic issues that included a troubled economy. Kennedy saw those in government as allies.

Now, 50 years later, we face the task of getting the economy back on track, reducing budget deficits, ensuring national security, competing on a global stage against China and other rising powers, investing in education and so much more. Yet Obama and Congress are on the verge of telling our public servants that they are expendable.

During a 1963 speech at Vanderbilt University, Kennedy again returned to the theme of government service. "You will find the pressures greater than the pay. You may endure more public attacks than support," Kennedy said. "But you will have the unequaled satisfaction of knowing that your character and talent are contributing to the direction and success of this free society."

Our nation today would be well served by a president who is willing by word and deed to strengthen the federal workforce, not to offer it up as a false sacrifice for our fiscal problems.

Max Stier is president and chief executive of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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