The work­ers Obama aban­doned

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY MAX STIER

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— an­dit 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 Sovi­etUnion 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.

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