Exactly how many new workers would be needed remains unclear -- one independent estimate was 100,000, while the conservative Heritage Foundation said it is likely to be closer to a quarter-million.
Administration officials said they cannot determine overall hiring projections until the president's full budget is released this spring, but acknowledged that significant new hiring will occur.
"It is premature to be making any assumptions about overall federal employment levels," White House budget director Peter Orszag said. "We have no desire to bloat bureaucracy -- indeed, just the opposite -- and the budget will not do that."
But, he added, "in several key areas -- from properly auditing contracts to providing quality medical care to veterans and reducing errors in Medicare and other programs -- investing in skilled professionals will not only pay off over time but also immediately deliver better service to taxpayers."
Several major agencies said they are already making plans to grow their workforces, some significantly.
Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, said they expect to hire more than 17,000 new employees by the end of the year, many at hospitals and other facilities to fulfill Obama's pledge to expand veterans' access to health care. The agency -- whose budget will grow by 11 percent, to $56 billion, under Obama's plan -- will add about 7,900 nurses, 3,300 doctors, 3,800 clerks and 2,400 practical nurses, spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said.
At the Social Security Administration, the budget will increase by 10 percent, to $11.6 billion, enabling the agency to hire new staff to handle backlogs on frontline operations, such as local field offices, hearing offices and teleservice centers, spokesman Mark Lassiter said.
Said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service: "This is obviously a new world. We've had a government that has been starved. . . . When you look at virtually every agency in government -- whether it's food inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration or claims examiners at the Social Security Administration -- across the board, we've had all too few people doing the business of government."
Between 1940 and 1970, the federal civilian workforce swelled from 707,000 to 2.1 million, according to government statistics provided by Stier. But ever since Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1981 with a call to decrease the government's footprint, presidents have limited the size of the workforce. Although President George W. Bush added tens of thousands of airport baggage screeners and other homeland security jobs, he offset much of that increase by limiting hiring at other agencies.
In reversing this trend, Obama would make himself politically vulnerable to charges that he is growing not just the power of government, but also its size. If the outside estimates are realized, Obama could spur a government hiring spree on a scale unseen since President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society agenda in the 1960s.
"What group of socialists got in the room and wrote this budget? Do they have any idea what the implications are?" asked Republican Newt Gingrich, who as House speaker in the 1990s advocated a shrinking of the government. "This is the most aggressive 180-degree turn that we have seen in the American system."
Obama, in his radio address Saturday, acknowledged that the budget signals "real and dramatic change" to the status quo in the federal city. "I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight as we speak," he said. "My message to them is this: So am I."
But the new president is "caught between a rock and a hard place," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. Obama inherited a federal workforce of about 2 million that Light described as woefully understaffed, especially to fulfill his bold domestic policy agenda. He predicted that Obama's budget and the $787 billion economic recovery package could require an additional 100,000 federal workers, but warned that the number may be even higher.
"I think that's just a start," Light said. "You kind of look across the federal landscape and you say there has to be more bodies with more expertise, as well as more bodies that can just deliver the basic services we've already promised."
At the conservative Heritage Foundation, the Center for Data Analysis estimated that Obama's budget and the stimulus bill could result in 230,000 to 260,000 new federal employees, primarily in areas such as education and health care.
"We found in the Obama plan that the increases in employment were overwhelmingly in the public sector," said William W. Beach, the center's director. "We haven't seen this much growth for a while."
Beach cautioned, however, that "any number of things can happen once these budgets become the subject of debate in Congress."
The Office of Management and Budget has not determined how Obama's budget would impact the federal workforce. Managers may reassign employees in some areas to more critical functions, such as overseeing or enforcing stimulus grants and contracts, OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer said.
"The federal workforce is going to undergo a fundamental transformation over the next decade as baby boomers who entered government service in the 1960s retire," Baer said. "Much of the human capital needs for new initiatives will be met by reorganizing, so as to reallocate positions left unfilled by retirements."
In some agency headquarters across Washington, the potential for expanding the federal workforce is the subject du jour. "It's being discussed in this building around every water cooler and cafeteria line there is," said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss budget plans.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents workers in 31 federal agencies, said the administration appears to be "rebuilding workforces that have not been properly maintained and supported."
At the Internal Revenue Service, she said, "there are hundreds of thousands more taxpayers today than there were 10 years ago, and there are 27,000 fewer employees."
At the Environmental Protection Agency, the employee base is expected to grow, but more modestly. The agency, which has about 17,000 employees, expects to add 100 to 200 positions, said a senior EPA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency's plans have not been made public.
"We have the authority to have additional folks, because we want to ensure proper oversight and management of these [stimulus] resources," the official said.
The EPA is being "cautious" about expanding the workforce because of the long-term costs associated with permanent employees, he said. "Not only are you paying for the people today," he said, "but you have to think about what are the implications for the future as well."