The Washington Post

Feds have high hopes, low expectations for Obama’s State of the Union address

President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress as he gives his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, 2013. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, many federal employees will be listening to what the boss-in-chief has to say about them.

They shouldn’t get their hopes up too high.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Obama has given scant attention to federal employees in his previous State of the Union speeches. Don’t expect this year to be different. One mention was in 2011, when he said: “We’ve frozen the salaries of hard-working federal employees for the next two years.”

Two years became three.

Of course, everyone with a just cause or a pet project wants a mention in the State of the Union. It is a high-profile address before a joint session of Congress broadcast live around the world. People take notice and want to be noticed by the president, whomever is in the White House. Everyone wants to be on the president’s agenda.

The "designated survivor" is a Cabinet member specifically kept away from the president's State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol. We spoke to four past "survivors." (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

Federal employees are no different.

That’s particularly true now, because of what they’ve gone through in recent years, because their morale is so low. They would like a nod, a thank you, maybe even one of them seated with the first lady. But people informed about a draft of the speech don’t expect any of that.

Considering the just-ended three-year freeze on their basic pay rates, plus the pay cut many feds suffered from the budget-cutting unpaid furlough days, plus the difficulties of the 16-day government shutdown, Tuesday’s speech would be an opportune time for Obama to thank federal workers for their service.

“I would hope that the president, even if he doesn’t mention federal employees directly, talks about some of the issues that are important and impacted federal employees, such as sequestration and the government shutdown,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Even if the president only speaks in general terms, Dougan would like the public and the workforce to take away a message from the speech about “the value of federal employees.”

Obama might not speak directly to feds Tuesday, but he has shown his appreciation for the workforce in other ways. On Jan. 17, he went to the Office of Management and Budget to cite staffers “for your work and your dedication” just before signing appropriations legislation into law. The day after the 16-day government shutdown ended in October, he delivered a strong tribute to the entire workforce.

“Thank you. Thanks for your service,” he said then at the White House.

“What you do is important. It matters. You defend our country overseas. You deliver benefits to our troops. . . . You guard our borders. You protect our civil rights. You help businesses grow and gain footholds in overseas markets. You protect the air we breathe and the water our children drink, and you push the boundaries of science and space, and you guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glories of this country,” he said. “Thank you. What you do is important, and don’t let anybody else tell you different, especially to the young people who come to this, this city, to serve believe that it matters. Well, you know what? You’re right. It does.”

Here is what some would like to hear Obama say Tuesday:

Sandra K. Knight, a 32-year fed, retired as a deputy associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency: “I would like to see the president reinstate the wave of enthusiasm he brought to the position his first term. Would love to see ‘it’s cool to be a fed’ back in the lineup. . . . I’ve never seen the current employee morale situation more abysmal.”

Carl Goldman, executive director, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 26: “Since many lower-paid contract workers are currently employed at government facilities, I would like him to announce an executive order that guarantees them a living wage.”

Kori Blalock Keller of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists: “Aviation safety inspectors and systems specialists, two workforces that are seriously understaffed at the Federal Aviation Administration . . . want to know how long they will be expected to continue to do more with less.”

Matt Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers: “Sadly, I’m not confident he will talk about workplace issues. This administration has done little in that area outside of the partnership executive order, which has been a mixed bag, at best, in improving labor-management relations.”

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley: “We would like him to say: ‘I will be proposing a 3.3 percent pay increase for federal workers.’ ”

Anyone can dream.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

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