by Joshua H. Liberatore
In recent weeks, POTUS has hit the road, pitching the merits of first, the massive stimulus package he supervised, and more recently, his budget proposal. With justifiable suspicion mounting among many average Americans that expanded liquidity injections and continued deficit spending benefit mainly corporations, banks, powerful interests, and lobby-rich industries, POTUS has also spent some time reassuring citizens about his ideas for taxation and his plans for the use of taxpayers’ money. As well he should. The anger over the AIG executive bonanzas in a year of record losses and mismanagement, all courtesy of the public dole, was palpable. But Americans often require direct instruction:
This is America. We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we certainly believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset, and rightfully so, are executives being rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, many of whom are having a tough time themselves. (February 4, 2009)
It’s a good thing that Americans “don’t disparage wealth,” because POTUS himself is profoundly wealthy, at least by the quotidian standards that most of us comprehend. Honest to the bone, however, he has also been quite forthright about those good fortunes. We revere the virtues of POTUS’s humble, Lincolnian roots and appreciate how natural talent, hard work, and a splendid education have rewarded him over the years. We know he wasn’t born into wealth, feels no entitlement to it, and indeed, by most accounts, distributes a good deal of it in charitable donations. None of that changes the fact that POTUS makes serious bank. And lately, by way of compassionate encouragement and with typical candor, POTUS has been offering casual reminders of his astonishing financial portfolio.
Another part of the problem with our economy and the way it was growing was that wages and incomes for ordinary working families were flat for the entire decade. Now, I don’t need to tell you this, because you’ve experienced it in your own lives. You’re just barely kept up with inflation while people at the very top – and look, I’ll be honest with you, I’m now in that category – we were seeing all the benefits. (March 18, 2009)
In 2008, book sales alone – his Senator’s salary was a modest $157,102 – earned POTUS a cool $2.5 million. In 2007, his royalties were even more impressive, grossing $3.9 million, on the strength of his two bestsellers Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Small potatoes compared with the nearly $110 million the Clintons have made over the eight-year period following their White House residency, largely from sales of their respective memoirs, speaking engagements, and general raking it in. Nevertheless, POTUS certainly brings home the bacon. And unlike the Clintons, he hasn’t been forced to spend a good deal of his royalties on legal fees and expensive attorneys.
On the other hand, people who were at the very top of the income scale, and I’m now included in that category, we’ve seen all the benefits of economic growth when things were going well. And I actually think that contributes to a cycle of bubble and bust. And if we have a situation in which middle-class people are earning a decent living, where we’ve got bottom-up economic growth, then I think that’s good for everybody. I think ultimately that’s good for businesses. I think it’s good for rich folks, because when the economy rises, everybody does well. And you don’t get as many distortions as you’ve gotten in this sort of bubble-and-bust cycle that we’ve had. (March 19, 2009)
And even though his salary as President is capped at $400,000, recall that POTUS’s personal expenses (clothes, books, haircuts, Christmas and birthday gifts) are quite limited compared to those of most of us. Rent and travel are deliciously free, meals are taken care of, and even weekend jaunts to Camp David are publically funded. No mortgage: the house in Hyde Park is most likely long paid off. POTUS must pay taxes like anyone else, of course, but given his relative youth, even a single-term tenure in the White House will clear him another fat million. A second term would double that, and he’ll still only be 55 upon retiring, collecting thereafter an annual pension of $191,000, legally calibrated to match the salaries of current Cabinet secretaries.
Now, for the top 5 percent, they’re the ones who typically saw huge gains in their income. I fall in that category. And what we’ve said is for those folks, let’s not renew the Bush tax cuts, so let’s go back to the rates that existed back in – during the Clinton era when wealthy people were still wealthy and doing just fine; and let’s look at the level in which people can itemize their deductions. And what we’ve said is let’s go back to the rate that existed under Ronald Reagan. (March 24, 2009)
Not a bad gig all told, and even though George Washington famously refused his presidential salary and John F. Kennedy donated his, POTUS trusts us not to begrudge him his hard-earned wealth. We are, after all, Americans; we worship at the shrine of Mammon. But in light of POTUS’s fantastic fortune, no less his recent blithe public mentions of it, one begins to understand why British Prime Minister Gordon Brown felt a tad bit disappointed when, on his first state visit to the Obama White House, his door prize was a mere 25 DVDs.