Obama’s Federal Pay Freeze A Sign Of Clintonian Triangulation?

Is President Obama's Federal pay freeze a sign that he's moving to the right, or just pointless symbolism?

At Politico today, Jonathan Allen and Jake Sherman speculate that President Obama’s decision to adopt a Republican idea and order a two year freeze on Federal worker’s pay is a sign that he may be moving toward the sort of triangulation we saw from President Clinton after the 1994 elections:

President Barack Obama’s embrace of the politically symbolic two-year freeze on federal government salaries aligns him with House Republican leaders and against unions, public workers and some leaders in his own party.

A winner of incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouCut online spending-cut poll in May, the proposal would require the House and Senate, at the last minute, to include the freeze in any long-term federal spending bill dealing with the slate of unfinished fiscal 2011 appropriations laws.

The president’s adoption of a GOP proposal that goes straight to the ideological divide between the parties — the size, scope and value of government — could be an early sign of White House efforts to move toward the political center in advance of the 2012 election.

It infuriated union leaders, some rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers and even a handful of Republicans — few of whom saw it coming — and thus put the president squarely to the political right of liberals and other labor allies. The word “triangulation” — a reference to President Bill Clinton’s practice of calibrating positions to distance him from both the political and left and the political right — floated through the corridors of Congress on Monday.

While the proposal is garnering mostly negative reaction on the left, it has gotten at least some positive comments from Congressional Republicans:

Republicans framed the freeze proposal as a good start on cutting federal expenditures.

“President Obama’s call for a federal pay freeze is a welcome step that will show taxpayers the federal government is willing to sacrifice and lead by example,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who offered a one-year pay freeze as a floor amendment in May. “I would also encourage agency heads to take steps now to freeze federal pay that do not require congressional approval.”

YouCut, Cantor’s brainchild, allows the public to vote on proposed federal spending cuts each week. The federal pay freeze won in the contest’s second week of operation back in May.

Cantor said he is “pleased that President Obama is ready to join our efforts.”

It’s hard to say that this is the beginning of a move to the right by Obama in reaction to the midterm elections and Ed Morrissey is skeptical that it means much of anything:

Could this be the start of a triangulation strategy?  Yes, but it could also be the end of Obama’s triangulation as well.  The pay freeze is hardly a monumental move towards the center.  It involves five billion dollars in savings over two years, or roughly 0.3% of the $1.3 trillion deficit from a single year in Obama’s budget.  It’s the lowest-hanging fruit in the bipartisan orchard.


After all the speculation, it’s certainly tempting to see a trend towards triangulation in a single and decidedly minor data point.  When Obama takes a serious political risk to shrink government and the regulatory regime, then we can talk about Clintonian triangulation strategies.  The pay freeze is nothing more than public relations.

I tend to agree with this assessment.

Much like the hullabaloo over earmarks and minuscule cuts in Congressional pay, this Federal pay raise is largely symbolic and will have little real impact on the deficit, and almost no impact on the growth in the size, scope, and power of the Federal Government. So, whether it’s triangulation or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether the President and the Republicans in Congress will do what needs to be done to bring Federal spending under control and shrink the size of a bloated Federal Government. Personally, I’m not optimistic.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tano says:

    Beginning of triangulation????
    What about appointing a bipartisan commission to do the dirty work of formulating a mix of tax increases and spending cuts necessary to move toward budget balance – as opposed to formulating a liberal proposal on his own?
    Or pushing through a health care bill that managed to make a fair chunk of his base view him as a complete sell-out?
    Or a stimulus that was half the size of what liberal economists estimated was necessary?

  2. G.A.Phillips says:

    Pay freeze, lol……..

  3. Pete says:

    Political smoke screen. I’m not sure Obama has the stomach to continue his fight to transform the American society. My bet is he won’t care if he loses a primary battle in 2012 as long as his signature legislation remains largely intact.

  4. Terrye says:

    I don’t think Obama is moving right and I also don’t think it is just pointless symbolism..why does it have to be one or the other?
    You have to start somewhere and this is something that should have been done a long time ago.

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    I like Glenn Beck’s government pay cut plan. I was gonna link to it but I am am sick of having to wade past thousands of idiot liberal  fake a$$ kool-aid stained clueless attack posts to get to anything conservative on freaking goggle.
     Damn donkadriods!  Got nothing better to do?

  6. 11B40 says:

    At the risk of appearing to undermine the efforts of our current president and based on my limited experience in the federal bureaucracy back in the last ’80s, I submit the following.
    Federal employee salaries can be increased by the Congress as part of its legislative duties. These are the increases that I understand the president wishes to freeze. However, federal employee compensation can also be increased by grade, step, and bonus awards.
    Federal employees have position descriptions that are evaluated by personnelists and assign a grade compensation level, in my days such as GS-5 or GM-13. Each grade level incorporates “step” increases which are mostly awarded based on time in grade every year or two. “Step” increases may also be awarded early for superior performance. There are also various one time bonus awards available to federal employees for superior performance or process improvement ideas. All three of these compensation alternatives require some managerial creativity and paperwork, and approval by the personnelists but they are hardly set in stone.
    Somehow, I think that the personnelists are going to be busier than usual for the next two years.