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Setting the Tone

2011 February 21

I suggested in an earlier post that President Obama may have been sending an unintended message when he froze all Federal government salaries at the end of last year. Now, as state and local budget battles ensue across the country, the starting point is not whether but how and how much to cut government employee compensation and benefits. Public unions are public enemy number one, and hardly anyone’s even trying to defend them anymore.

As E.J. Dionne writes in The Washington Post today:  “Washington is acting as if the only real problem the United States confronts is the budget deficit; the only test of leadership is whether the president is willing to make big cuts in programs that protect the elderly; and the largest threat to our prosperity comes from public employees.”

But inconsistent messages abound. The same group that chants, “We’re Number One!” also insists we must get used to getting along with less. We’ve fallen far behind other countries in educating our youth, yet half of our population is convinced that teacher cut-backs are necessary.

Union-busting fervor and the whim to trim long have been brewing. In the current impasse in Wisconsin, the public unions already have all but conceded that of course they’re no longer entitled to what they’d bargained for. They’ve been reduced to pleading simply for their continued right to collectively bargain.

President Obama offered support to workers in a recent television interview, and his administration’s political arm may even be offering behind-the-scenes assistance to pro-union protesters in Wisconsin and other states, but his unilateral freeze on Federal employee compenstaion late last year helped set the tone, if not the stage, for the state of the current budget battles.

As Dionne concludes: “[A]ny fair examination of the news suggests that [Obama] is in danger of losing control of the national narrative again, just as he did during the stimulus and health care battles. In his State of the Union address, Obama made a good case that budget cutting is too small an agenda and that this is also a time for more government — yes, more government — in areas that would expand opportunities and strengthen the economy. [But] that argument has been entirely drowned out. If politics is reduced to a crabbed and crabby accountants’ war, Obama loses. The country will, too.”

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