Presidential Shutdown Propaganda via OPM?

Agency heads are pleading President Obama's case in advance of a shutdown.

Bookworm Room‘s Don Quixote (which I’m guessing is not his given name) wonders, “Am I making something of nothing or is this outrageous?” His wife, an employee of the Treasury Department, today received a mass email from the Assistant Secretary in charge of such things which read, in part:

Throughout the discussions about funding for the rest of the fiscal year, the President has made it clear that he does not want a government shutdown, and the Administration is willing and ready to work day and night to find a solution with which all sides can agree.

DQ observes:

The statement has nothing to do with the shutdown itself or what will happen if there is a shutdown. It is a purely political and completely partisan statement. Obama is working day and night and it’s those terrible Republicans who are inflicting this terror upon you. So, am I making something out of nothing or is this a thoroughgoing abuse of what should be a non-partisan office?

I had a similar reaction yesterday afternoon when I saw almost identical language in a similar message from Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III. A quick Google search reveals variations on that boilerplate went to agencies throughout the government, ranging from OPM to NASA. The phrase “the President has made it clear that he does not want a government shutdown, and the Administration is willing and ready to work day and night to find a solution with which all sides can agree” appears in all of them.  WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe, who runs the Federal Eye blog, has collected tons of them and didn’t seem to think anything amiss.

It’s true that, in most–if not all–cases, the sending individuals are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president (or is that “the President”?). But they’re ostensibly acting as agency heads, not partisans.

The tone of the message isn’t “outrageous,” I don’t think, but it’s a bit mmore than “something of nothing.” Presumably, Obama actually doesn’t want a government shutdown, since the consequences are serious, although he does seem to have calculated that the Republicans will be damaged more than him. And I’m sure he’s willing to stay up another three hours to get a deal struck–which, by definition, all sides would have to agree on. But should he be using ostensibly non-partisan federal senior managers to send out this message?

Even agency heads who aren’t political appointees answer to the president, who is the head of the Executive Branch of government. But they’re not supposed to take sides against Congress in ongoing political battles.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Chad S says:

    You’re overreacting. He doesn’t cast any blame or make any claims other than he doesn’t want a shutdown. Trying to claim that he’s blaming the GOP at all isn’t supported by the statement shown.

  2. Mithras says:

    Scratching my head at your reasoning, James. This is a message from the boss to the employees about the status of negotiations that could, if they fail, furlough people without pay. I think in those circumstances, it’s appropriate for the boss to say, “I don’t want this to happen and we’re working on preventing it.” Your reaction would be warranted if the language blamed anyone at all, even impliedly. It doesn’t.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Chad S:

    At very least, he’s using agency heads to cast blame on Congress rather than on himself. But, rather clearly, he’s telling 800,000 employees at risk of being furloughed that the government wouldn’t be shutting down if the Republicans would work harder and be more reasonable.

  4. Mithras says:

    the government wouldn’t be shutting down if the Republicans would work harder and be more reasonable.

    Really? Where does it say that?

  5. wr says:

    This is the same strange OTB reasoning that keeps coming up — once someone is elected to office, he is no longer allowed to have opinions on anything, including his duties.

  6. Mithras says:

    Just to clarify, even reasonable people who are negotiating sometimes can’t reach a deal, or at least not within a given time frame. Nowhere in Obama’s statement does he even imply that the other side is unreasonable. To label this statement as “propaganda” is a tell: I think conservatives might be getting a little defensive because they sense the shutdown would be very unpopular and the blame might fall squarely on them.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Mithras: I’m not sure how you read the language as anything other than the president saying, “Hey, it’s not my fault! I didn’t want this.”

    @wr: The president is a policy-maker and has every right to address matters of public policy, including take on other policy-makers in the other party in a vigorous manner.

    Here, though, he’s having functionaries in non-partisan roles issue statements giving him political cover in an ongoing battle. That strikes me as problematic.

    And, yes, I’m also very leery of public officials issuing statements condemning the non-criminal actions of private citizens. It’s not a fair fight and citizens shouldn’t have people they’re paying calling them out.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Mithras: We keep crossing comments–I answer one and you’ve posted another while I’m answering.

    I’ve been pretty critical of how the GOP has handled this. I just think our agency heads should be neutral. “We’re working to avoid a shutdown” or some such is fine. Here, they’re going beyond that any trying to absolve the president of any blame, even though he’s a party and could sign a deal if he wanted.

  9. Mithras says:

    James: In this situation, for the President not to say that he did not want the shutdown to happen and was working to prevent it would be an implied message that either he did want it or it was inevitable.

  10. Chad S says:

    James, how is he blaming the GOP congress or using anyone? He doesn’t encourage action or even say anything other than(paraphrasing here) “I don’t want a shutdown and I’m willing to work towards a solution” Frankly, that can be seen as weakness, that he’s willing to compromise at any cost just to avert a shutdown. All the federal employees don’t need to be told by anyone that a shutdown hurts their bottom line.

  11. A scummy union thug says:

    James,

    I have to put in with Mithras and wr on this one. The connotation you see is your baggage, representing whatever you perceive to be untrustworthy about the Obama administration.

    Put it in another context, when I was working in industry–back in the bad old days when we still had many union contracts dedicated to stealing bread out of the mouths of executive managements children and denying those children their God-given right to go to Harvard–my bosses frequently would tell us that they wanted us to know that no one wanted a strike and veryone was working to avoid having one. And, yes, I know that technically that was a violation of the rules of conduct, if not federal law. Nevertheless, no one that I worked with ever complained about the messages. We assumed that they were messages of relative good will from middle management funtionaries who had as much to lose in a strike as we did, Even though the message is boilerplate in style, I find myself wondering why you feel a need to see laying of blame at the feet of Republicans in Congress–who, at the last minute changed the rules of what would make an agreement–no connotation here, “I’m just sayin’.”

  12. mantis says:

    But, rather clearly, he’s telling 800,000 employees at risk of being furloughed that the government wouldn’t be shutting down if the Republicans would work harder and be more reasonable.

    Bullshit. It’s an employer telling employees who are worried about the state of their jobs that the boss is working to fix it. Sure it’s perfunctory and meaningless, but more importantly to your point, never mentions Republicans at all. It never says they aren’t working hard enough. It never says they aren’t reasonable. It never implies either of these things. The reason O’Keefe doesn’t see anything amiss is there is nothing amiss.

    I’m not sure how you read the language as anything other than the president saying, “Hey, it’s not my fault! I didn’t want this.”

    How about “Folks, I don’t want you stuck on furloughs. I’m going to work to avoid that.” You could read it that way, if you weren’t predisposed to add your own meaning to the words, despite what they actually say.

  13. JKB says:

    The statement would be far less problematic if it had been a statement from the President or the White House that was forwarded by these individuals as part of their duties.

    it is actually unwise for these agency people to be prodding Congress, Republicans or otherwise, as they will be seeking appropriations for their budgets. While agency heads ostensively report to the president, they receive their authorizing legislation and appropriations directly from Congress. Members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, are known to hold grudges and take petty retribution.

  14. Jay Tea says:

    On a very minor aside, I was taught that “president” is capitalized when it is used as a proper noun or if refers to a specific individual, not if the office is being cited. For example, the president appoints ambassadors; the President appointed John Bolton to be the ambassador to the UN.

    I think that the message was improper, as it’s arguable if he really is trying to avoid a shutdown, but a very trivial offense on the grand scale of things.

    J.

  15. reid says:

    If you think this innocuous message is problematic, you must have been absolutely apoplectic over the political shenanigans the Bush administration pulled. (Cue the “I knew someone would bring that up” response.)

  16. Don Quixote says:

    I suppose I saw it as partisan because it only said that the Administration was ready to work day and night to resolve the problem. It should have either said that both sides are working hard to or said nothing at all. These are theoretically non-partisan high level managers and they should be neutral. How about something like, “No one wants a government shudown and the Administration and Congress are working to ensure that one doesn’t happen.”?

  17. Anon says:

    I side with James on this one, despite the fact that I actually do think it’s the Republicans much more than the Democrats that want a shutdown. It could have just said, “Though a shutdown would be unfortunate…”, etc.

  18. sam says:

    Ah, lighten up for Christ’s sake. He’s the boss of the executive branch, and he sent a message to the employees …Jesus.

    ” How about something like, “No one wants a government shudown and the Administration and Congress are working to ensure that one doesn’t happen.”?”

    How about he can only legitimately speak for the executive branch? Once again, Jesus.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Sam: I wouldn’t have given it a second glance if it was issued under the president’s signature. He’s an elected policymaker and fully understood to be a partisan actor. It’s the agency heads sending it out in their messaging that struck me as somewhat problematic.

  20. sam says:

    Yikes. Uh, my knee jerked so hard, it blurred my vision….still, I don’t think there’s anything untoward about the messaging. I don’t really see the anti-Congress content — really, I don’t.

    “But should he be using ostensibly non-partisan federal senior managers to send out this message?”

    More of a message to reassure the federal dobees that the boss has their interests in mind. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But there is that jerking knee problem….

  21. steve says:

    “No one wants a government shudown and the Administration and Congress are working to ensure that one doesn’t happen.”

    Since when should Administration speak for Congress. As I suspect you well know, there are some people in Congress who do want a shutdown, or do not care that much if one happens. Administration is just another way of say Executive branch. If 800,000 employees are going to suddenly stop getting paid, you have to say something to them.

    Steve

  22. Herb says:

    “How about something like, “No one wants a government shudown and the Administration and Congress are working to ensure that one doesn’t happen.”?”

    I get your point, but it’s largely semantic and not even accurate. There is quite clearly some interest in a shutdown coming and it’s coming from a certain sector. I don’t even have to name names for everyone here to know who I’m talking about.

    Seriously, if a statement like “The president doesn’t want a shut down” is considered “taking sides,” we’re acknowledging that the other side has a different view. Are we not?

    Wouldn’t it be more of a case of “taking sides” if some of the specific budget proposals were mentioned? Something along the lines of “the President has made it clear that he won’t support Paul Ryan’s road map?”

  23. george says:

    At very least, he’s using agency heads to cast blame on Congress rather than on himself. But, rather clearly, he’s telling 800,000 employees at risk of being furloughed that the government wouldn’t be shutting down if the Republicans would work harder and be more reasonable.

    Throughout the discussions about funding for the rest of the fiscal year, the President has made it clear that he does not want a government shutdown, and the Administration is willing and ready to work day and night to find a solution with which all sides can agree.

    Actually, was there a longer text to the message sent out? The part you quote doesn’t mention either Congress or the Republicans. It doesn’t even imply that the Republicans aren’t doing their part, it could just as well be interpreted to say there are huge differences and both sides are doing their best in a very difficult situation.

  24. Farnham says:

    So we see the double pronged dilemma that Americans face: Political extremists telling us that roads and schools and armies can be paid for without taxes, and media pundits spinning reasonable statements into ‘propaganda’. Really?

    Boilerplate? Really? Do you really think it some kind of secret conspiracy when the head of the Executive Branch and the heads of the agencies in that branch present an ‘on the same page’ posture? The situation described in the paragraph above makes it deadly for agency heads to exhibit any variance, even based on natural differences in the missions and operational details of their individual agencies, lest they be labeled ‘rogues’, or ‘rebels’ or worse in the headlines of pieces like this one.

  25. mantis says:

    Actually, was there a longer text to the message sent out? The part you quote doesn’t mention either Congress or the Republicans.

    The rest of it had to do with what happens if there is a shutdown, especially regarding government workers’ pay. That’s because it was a message from employers to employees. Few federal employees work for Congress. They mostly all work for the Executive.

    The partisanship of this message is not there, except in the minds of partisans reading it.

  26. anjin-san says:

    It appears that now that the GOP has figured out that shutting down the government to promote it’s social agenda is not a good idea, no straw is too thin to grasp…

  27. Don Quixote says:

    Sure, and I suppose the people who are blind to the partisan nature of the message are not partisan themselves. Sorry, but I have my doubts. You are right that my broader statement would not be 100% accurate (only about 99.99%), which just emphasizes that the senior managers should not have been saying anything about the Administration being willing to work day and night at all. Just get to the point of the memo without the political preamble.

  28. william justiniano says:

    they sould give out buyouts for GOV with more then 25 years of service that would cut more money from the GOV for civilians with the time to retire.BIG CUT IN FUNDS