Even as the total number of federal employees rises, the ratio of employees to Americans has declined steadily, from one employee for every 78 residents in 1953 to one employee for every 110 residents in 1988 to one employee for every 155 residents in 2008.
The federal work force is older than the private-sector work force, which Mr. Light said raises the possibility of reducing the total number through retirements.
About 31 percent of the private work force is 50 or older, while 46 percent of the federal work force is 50 or older.
Mr. Obama is in a situation similar to that of Mr. Clinton, who took office when the budget deficit was at a record high and government bureaucracy was expanding, even though the Pentagon was shedding workers with the end of the Cold War.
Mr. Clinton in 1996 declared that “the era of big government is over” and took steps to work with Congress to control spending and cut the work force, which already had been trending lower.
As he left office in 2000, Mr. Clinton boasted that his administration had helped cut 377,000 government jobs, leaving the smallest civilian federal work force since 1960.
Mr. Obama, though, appears to be accepting a larger federal work force.
The administration has called for federal workers to get a 1.4 percent pay raise next year, which Mr. Orszag said, “frankly, I think to a lot of Americans, sounds pretty good.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents many government workers, said it was combing through the budget and did not have a comment.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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