The Pen, Phone, and Stray Voltage

After pay-gap flap, Obama turns to worker training.

Lightning strike over Buenos Aires' city during a thunderstorm on April 8, 2014.
National Journal
April 16, 2014, 1:10 a.m.

PITT­S­BURGH — The lengthy de­bate last week over Pres­id­ent Obama’s se­lect­ive stat­ist­ic­al em­phas­is when dis­cuss­ing the pay gap between work­ing men and wo­men drew many re­ac­tions. They are likely to be far dif­fer­ent than the re­ac­tion Obama will re­ceive here Wed­nes­day upon rolling out the first en­deavor of Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s task force on re­vamp­ing work­er train­ing (more on that later).

Of the pay-gap rap, Ruth Mar­cus of The Wash­ing­ton Post found parts “re­volt­ing.” Mar­cus was closer than she knew. Not with the ad­ject­ive but the root noun.

The White House saw the con­ten­tious wrangling over the di­men­sions of the gender pay gap na­tion­ally—even the gnaw­ing over male/fe­male pay dis­par­it­ies at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave — as a gift. A gift the White House wrapped for it­self.

Al­low me to ex­plain. The ques­tion­ing of Obama’s use of a Census Bur­eau stat­ist­ic that the me­di­an wages of work­ing wo­men in Amer­ica are 77 per­cent of me­di­an wages earned by men las­ted al­most all week. The story revved in­to mini-over­drive when the White House de­fens­ively swat­ted away cri­ti­cism that salar­ies on Obama’s watch — for which the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute  used the same me­di­an wages met­ric ap­plied by the Census Bur­eau — showed that wo­men in the pres­id­ent’s em­ploy earned 88 cents for every dol­lar earned by men.

All to the de­light of a White House des­per­ate to in­ject the is­sue in­to the polit­ic­al blood­stream and amp­li­fy oth­er­wise doomed Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic ef­forts to make it easi­er for wo­men to sue and win dam­ages for work­place pay dif­fer­ences. The con­tro­versy that played out on front pages, so­cial me­dia, TV, and ra­dio did just that.

This is the White House the­ory of “Stray Voltage.” It is the brainchild of former White House Seni­or Ad­viser Dav­id Plouffe, whose meth­ods loom large long after his de­par­ture. The the­ory goes like this: Con­tro­versy sparks at­ten­tion, at­ten­tion pro­vokes con­ver­sa­tion, and con­ver­sa­tion em­beds pre­vi­ously un­known or mar­gin­al­ized ideas in the pub­lic con­scious­ness. This hap­pens, Plouffe the­or­izes, even when — and some­times es­pe­cially when — the White House ap­pears de­fens­ive, be­sieged, or off-guard. I first dis­covered and wrote about this in Ju­ly of 2012.

A top White House ad­viser told me last week’s pay gap dust up was a “per­fect” ex­ample of stray voltage. This time it was pre­med­it­ated.

Soon after this year’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress, where Obama high­lighted the pay-gap is­sue, Les­ley Clark, a re­port­er with Mc­Clatchy News Ser­vice, first zer­oed in on the White House’s own pay gap. Clark used pub­lic data on White House salar­ies to de­term­ine that wo­men earned 91 cents for every dol­lar men earned, us­ing the same for­mula in the Census Bur­eau me­di­an wage es­tim­ate cited by Obama. That dif­fer­ence, Clark re­por­ted, amoun­ted to an av­er­age pay of $76,516 for White House wo­men com­pared with $84,082 for men.

The story, sadly, gained little trac­tion. But the White House saw it com­ing and dis­cussed ways to cope with the pay gap and de­bated al­ter­ing Obama’s stat­ist­ics when rais­ing the pay-gap is­sue in the fu­ture — as it knew he would. The de­cision was made to stick with the same 77 cents-on-the-dol­lar pay-gap fig­ure, even though it was im­pre­cise and in­vited un­fa­vor­able com­par­is­ons with the White House wage scale.

Obama’s team ex­pec­ted, in­vited, and, to a cer­tain de­gree, rel­ished last week’s hub­bub. That’s stray voltage in ac­tion.

Or in­ac­tion.

As a the­ory, “stray voltage” ex­ists in a kind of stra­tegic void. It can’t be dis­missed or em­braced as work­able be­cause cre­at­ing con­tro­versy for the sake of con­tro­versy is, well, achiev­able. Like get­ting soup from the White House mess. It’s also self-re­in­for­cing and in­tern­ally di­dact­ic. Every­one looks around and says, “See. There’s con­tro­versy. It’s work­ing.”

But it’s also re­veal­ing when the em­phas­is has shif­ted to a “pen and phone” strategy that el­ev­ates ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion over messy le­gis­lat­ive hag­gling. The pen-and-phone ap­proach has be­come a low-level White House fet­ish, with ef­forts to sidestep Con­gress and place Obama at the cen­ter of the ac­tion all-con­sum­ing.

That will be on dis­play today in sub­urb­an Pitt­s­burgh as Obama and Biden ad­dress the slum­ber­ing is­sue of work­er re­train­ing. The White House will an­nounce $600 mil­lion in grants and com­pet­i­tion for fed­er­al dol­lars to in­crease job-spe­cif­ic work­er train­ing after tour­ing Com­munity Col­lege of Al­legheny County in nearby Oak­dale.

New Cen­tury Ca­reers, a loc­al non­profit, links work­er train­ing to iden­ti­fied job needs and em­ploy­ers. The concept is to make the job-train­ing pro­cess more lin­ear — dir­ectly train­ing people for avail­able job open­ings in man­u­fac­tur­ing and re­lated fields. The Labor De­part­ment will of­fer $500 mil­lion in grants to com­munity col­leges that have put to­geth­er these types of pro­grams, avail­able in all 50 states. Ap­pren­tice­ships serve this pur­pose, and Obama will an­nounce big com­mit­ments from the Big Three auto­makers, John Deere, and oth­er firms to boost ap­pren­tice­ships and will aug­ment the pro­cess with $100 mil­lion in fed­er­al funds. All of this be­cause Obama and Biden see little hope for re­form­ing ex­ist­ing fed­er­al job-train­ing pro­grams — many of them re­dund­ant — on Cap­it­ol Hill. Too com­plic­ated and ar­du­ous.

There is one com­mon thread between the pay gap and job train­ing. Con­gress is a sideshow, and ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion is more com­pel­ling. At least as far as Obama is con­cerned.

The dif­fer­ence is this. The job train­ing an­nounce­ments today have no chance of spark­ing con­tro­versy nearly as lively as the pay gap. But they might ac­tu­ally do more for the eco­nomy, jobs, and wages. In oth­er words, make a dif­fer­ence. Without the stray voltage.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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