Obama shakes hands with senior executives who attended his address at the Hilton in Washington.

Obama shakes hands with senior executives who attended his address at the Hilton in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

President Offers Senior Execs High Praise, But No Bonuses

President tells senior career officials: "I’ve got your back."

Six years into his presidency, Obama on Tuesday for the first time addressed the career professionals who lead federal agencies. While he lavished high praise, he also tempered prospects for actions to back up that praise.

“My message here is simple,” Obama said to kick off his speech. “Thank you. I’d like to come here bearing raises and perks, but I can’t."

Instead, Obama told the 3,000 Senior Executive Service employees and other career federal leaders gathered at a Hilton ballroom in Washington that he could only offer his confirmation of “how important you are not just to me but to the country.”

It was not just words, however; Obama also announced initiatives to reform and modernize the SES, and he launched a new award program, albeit non-monetary.

Obama praised the career executives repeatedly, attempting to bring recognition to those he said so often go unnoticed.

“You keep America running,” Obama said. “You do it without fanfare. In fact, doing your job right often means nobody hears about you.”

The crowd responded with a knowing laugh of agreement.

Obama acknowledged those in attendance often work in a challenging environment.

“You work under tough circumstances, whether it’s sequestration, pay freeze, shutdown, and, more importantly, a political climate where folks too often talk down government for cheap applause,” he said.

Political opportunism and attempts to undermine the bureaucracy have caused the American people to distrust government, Obama said, while challenging the executives to rethink how they can best deliver services in the future.

“How can we yank this government into the 21st century and make it smarter and faster and more responsive?” Obama asked. “Because if all we’re doing is hunkering down and trying to push back against complaints and criticisms -- many of which are unfair -- but [if] we’re not engaging in self-reflection and trying to figure out how every single day we can be doing our jobs a little bit better, then we’re failing the American people, and we’re failing an incredible tradition that helped to build this country that you are a part of.”

Obama highlighted several federal executives for innovative and successful operations, who he said many have not heard of simply because their programs worked. Gary Penner, who helped bring health workers to West Africa to fight Ebola and prepare personnel in the region; Kevin Tokarski, who led a team at the Transportation Department to remove chemical weapons from Syria; and Julie Kramer, the chief engineer for the Orion mission at NASA received special mentions.

The White House, in conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, created a full morning of events to preface Obama’s speech. The occasion, called “Leading America’s Workforce,” featured panel discussions and an address from OPM Director Katherine Archuleta. Several members of the Marine Corps Band entertained the audience between speakers.

Archuleta told the executives in the room to walk away from the president’s speech with a newfound purpose.

“Today’s event not only allows us to reflect on what together we have accomplished, but can inspire us toward what we have yet to do,” she said. “Let today serve as an opportunity for us to recommit to the president’s leadership goals, values and priorities.”

Obama, however, acknowledged one event would not serve as the cure for all that ails senior executives in federal government.

“This is going to continue to be a tough environment,” Obama said. “There’s not going to be a lot of new money flowing.” He added: “It’s going to continue to be easy copy for the press to focus on the one thing that goes wrong instead of the 99 things that go right -- that's not going to change.”

Still, while the public recognition may be low and the finances a bit precarious, Obama said morale should remain high because for most senior executives, it was never really about the money or the glory.

“I’m going to keep doing everything I can to support you and your teams. I want you to know that I’ve got your back, because I know that for many of you, this job is more than just a paycheck -- it’s a chance to serve the country that you love.”

He added: “There is no greater opportunity to help more people, to make a bigger difference -- in some cases to help millions, in some cases to help billions around the world -- than to be in the positions that we are privileged to be in right now.”