Obama’s Salary Sacrifice Is Pointless

by evanmcmurry

This seems futile:

President Obama plans to give up 5 percent of his salary this year to draw attention to the financial sacrifice of more than 1 million federal employees who will be furloughed by automatic spending cuts starting in less than three weeks, the White House said Wednesday.

Why? Because it takes WaPo a split second to write this:

Obama cannot claim true solidarity with most federal employees. He has published two best-selling autobiographies and the vast majority of his income comes in the form of royalties. According to tax returns, the president and Michelle Obama made $750,000 in 2011. In the previous year, the couple made $1.8 million and in 2009 they reported an annual income of $5.5 million.

(Which is beside the point, or at least was until that paragraph.)

And it takes the RNC even less time to scribble this:

“Hi all, don’t worry about that whole budget thing taxpayers. Obama is giving back 5 percent. . . . And then he’ll hop on Air Force One to take a $180k per HOUR ride to fundraise with the same fat cat millionaires and billionaires he campaigned against.”

Honestly, you could have written that. My dog could have written that. Never mind that Obama doesn’t avail himself of a single advantage to which previous Presidents didn’t have access, or that his predecesor took full advantage of his office despite a personal wealth that dwarfs Obama’s. Too many people think politicians are overpaid to begin with, and a certain subsection has never liked That Person fingering the White House drapes anyway; for them, Obama’s pay cut is just a nice start.

More to the point, Obama’s pay cut doesn’t bring renewed attention to the effects of the sequester—it brings renewed attention to himself. This is the downside of the celebrity Obama often so craftily uses to his advantage: he obscures as he amplifies. This works when the issue is gay marriage, and it has the push behind it to outlast distortion; but when the subject is arcane spending cuts, the message gets drowned out.

Not so of similar sacrifices by other government officials with lower lightning rod-quotients:

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he will return a portion of his salary to share the pain with 750,000 Defense civilians who will lose 14 days of pay this fiscal year. The Environmental Protection Agency announced that Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe decided — before the president’s action became public — to donate 32 hours of pay to a fund that provides emergency loans, child-care subsidies and other financial help to federal workers.

Note how the actions of these less acute figures—quick, name the Acting Administrator of the EPA! See, you just read his name and still don’t know it!—immediately fold back onto the actual employees feeling the brunt of the cuts. Hagel is standing with Defense workers; Perciasepe is standing with the families who will lose child-care funds. Just reading that paragraph drives home the real-world impact of the sequester in a way that a President’s pay cut never will.

I remain convinced that the sequester is a long-game loser for the GOP. Jeff Maryak, the army reservist in Buzzfeed‘s much linked-to story about a man for whom the sequester is the straw that may send him back to war, is not the most sympathetic of figures, but he’s just the beginning. There are thousands more out there like him, with families imperiled and homes at risk and tuitions savaged and so on. The more their stories trickle out, the more the GOP will look like ghouls for engineering a political victory on the backs of combat veterans and the like. All the GOP gets out of this deal is a bunch of increasingly unpopular spending cuts and small bragging rights for beating Obama; but the more those bragging rights rest on Jeff Maryak’s reenlistment, the more those two rewards will cancel each other out.

Obama doesn’t need to take a pay cut for this to happen. He needs to keep arguing effectively for increased revenue, spending cuts that don’t disproportionately effect the working class, and budget decisions that leave government leaner and more efficient rather than gaunt and dysfunctional. For now, Obama’s sacrifice is recusing himself from being an example, lest he smother the real ones.