America’s Bad King
[The great honor of occasionally posting here at TC has been extended to me by the proprietors. I am grateful, and look forward to the vigorous dialogue, as always.]
He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants … And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:14, 18)
The people demanded a king. The Lord answered: Be careful what you wish for.
They sought a monarch to raise their status among the nations, but already at the tail end of the Bronze Age kingship meant heavy taxation and profligate leaders. For Israel, the monarchy also would bring a divided nation and centuries of palace-led civic backsliding on their covenant with God. It all ended badly.
Though we in the US have neither a formal crown nor state religion, that 11th century BCE national decision point serves as a teachable moment. We have allowed the office of our president to evolve into something akin to royalty, not only through increased executive branch powers but also in the abounding perks and grandeur we have bestowed on it in recent decades.
In doing so we broke key tenets of our civil religion, fostering the cardinal sins of hypocrisy and triumphalism, and allowing a president to interpret his mandate for leadership as a license for elitism: rules for thee but not for me.
Two recent books argue the US presidency is a public office gone awry, and that a scandal growing slowly in the shadows came into full bloom under President Barack Obama: With Obama, an institution ripe for abuse was met by a president willing to push its boundaries.
But whoever wins tomorrow’s election, it is time for a severe public reappraisal of presidential privileges and costs going forward.
Although Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 as a friend of the middle class and said “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” the dirty little secret of the Obama era is that while the US poverty rate has soared, large corporations and the wealthiest Americans have prospered the most. Obama himself, when his income and untaxed personal benefits are calculated, is in the top 1% of the “1%,” thanks solely to the largesse of US taxpayers.
For example, Americans have spent about $20 million per year funding the Obama family’s vacations. Chief among these is their annual trip to Hawaii, which costs us $9 million. The first couple’s “date night” to New York City for dinner and a show had a public tab of over $1 million. As of February 2012, in their first three years in office, the presidential family had tallied 16 separate vacations during one of the worst prolonged economic downturns in US history.
Several weeks after a February 2011 speech noting that normal Americans “might put off a vacation” during hard economic times, President Obama took the first family and other family members on a trip to Latin America. Later that year, despite the president’s recent executive order limiting government workers’ travel expenses, the First Lady and other family members left a few days early for their luxury vacation in Hawaii, requiring additional planes and staff and incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded expenses.
As author John F. Groom (whitehouseexpenses.com) observes in The 1.4 Billion Dollar Man: Costs of the Obama White House, Mrs. Obama’s “absolute contempt for taxpayers sometimes takes the form of figuratively flipping the bird at them; for example her two daughters, aged 13 and 10, are listed as ‘Senior Staff’ on the passenger manifest for their trip to South Africa and Botswana.”
The US president’s actual annual personal expenses are hidden within numerous federal budgets, particularly under the Department of Defense, and primarily for transportation. Over 1,000 military personnel are devoted simply to moving the president and his family around, often for vacations, public relations opportunities, and the many campaign and fundraising trips. The presidential helicopter fleet is a particularly galling example which “takes waste and fraud to a new level.” The current fleet has 31 helicopters, which cost $500 million each, and are used almost exclusively to ferry the president and first family from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base. By way of comparison, identical-sized craft used to take US service members into battle zones, hardened against enemy fire, cost $90 million each.
In total, Groom compiles $1.4 billion in annual costs for the first family in 15 main expense categories. His calculations do not include costs required for the president to do his job; for example, Groom only includes one-eighth of the Office of Administration budget.
Beyond taking discretionary spending to new heights, Obama has, in Groom’s view, achieved a new zenith in transforming his role from commander-in-chief to celebrity-in-chief, “entitled to the most extravagant conceivable lifestyle, with cost no object, regardless of whether the citizens—or rather, his subjects—are prospering.”
To put the Obamas’ lifestyle in perspective: One of the last official royal families on earth, the British monarchy, received less than $50 million in taxpayer funds in 2011. This amount would keep the Obama White House running for about nine days.
For preaching restraint in the private and public sectors while enjoying a lifestyle of unrestrained extravagance, Obama displays the “sort of hypocrisy that leads to a complete lack of faith in political leadership,” Groom says.
Groom’s exposé could serve as a guidebook for reforming the office of the presidency, both in the extensive list of discretionary expenditures he has ferreted out of various government cost centers, and the astonishing lack of presidential transparency revealed in the investigative report. Though focused on the Obama administration, The 1.4 Billion Dollar Man sheds light on an institutional problem that has grown tremendously under the past several US presidents.
Groom estimates that about $1 billion could be cut from the president’s expenses each year with no negative effects on the security and comfort of the first family or the president’s ability to perform the duties of office effectively.
While $1 billion in annual savings by the president might have a relatively small impact on the $1 trillion federal deficit, it’s a significant sum of money when so many Americans are suffering and it would, in Groom’s words, “send the message throughout government and society in general that wasteful, ostentatious spending is wrong.”
One of the most eye-opening presidential expense categories is $311 million annually in “unreimbursed campaign expenses” (Groom estimates this figure to be very much on the low side because it does not account for the full increase in 2012 election year expenditures.)
In Presidential Perks Gone Royal, Robert Keith Gray (robertkeithgray.com) warns that “the presidency has become a de facto principality” where the advantages of incumbency almost guarantee the reelection of a sitting president. Specifically, the unlimited, unregulated and unreimbursed use of aircraft, vehicles and military personnel for campaign purposes since the 1990s has transformed presidential campaigning.
Once presidents found they could use the new Air Force Ones without limit as campaign tools, none has been denied re-election.
Under current policy, to the extent there is any regulation at all, an incumbent’s presidential campaign reimburses the federal government the cost of a first-class ticket for each official campaign representative aboard the president’s planes. Each trip, however, requires many aircraft – often a second Air Force One, one or more smaller jets, multiple helicopters, and cargo craft – automobiles, and hundreds of personnel. So the true cost of each trip can be in the millions of dollars. Reimbursement of $7,500 each for six or seven individuals is laughably insignificant.
A veteran of the Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan administrations, Gray provides many insights and anecdotes about US presidential history and changes within White House operations. Most Americans believe, for example, that the White House is primarily a public building, when in reality only a tiny portion is available for public visitation or use in any way. All but five rooms of the 132-room mansion are reserved for the exclusive enjoyment of the first family. A huge contingent of employees serving the first family, including kitchen staff, medical team and even projectionists for the cinema are on duty 24/7.
Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned about sitting presidents employing the inherent advantages of office for re-election. Gray believes that today the threat is dire, that “these extravagances have the capacity to prove fatal to our most cherished democratic ideals, and we would be foolish to ignore indicators of an executive process sorely out of balance.”
What is most ironic about presidential extravagance in the Obama Administration is that Obama presented himself as something quite the opposite of elitist, secretive and indulgent. Besides – and apart from – his policy proposals, Obama appealed to Americans fed up with the “old way” of Washington politics.
Populist, post-partisan and post-racial, with his major themes of transparency and ethical behavior, Obama presented himself as a new kind of public servant.
This image was appealing on numerous levels; again, not solely because of the policies Obama espoused, but because he struck a chord that resonates with our customs. Equality is central to the American Creed, and Obama was no elitist. He was one of us.
As de Tocqueville observed, unique to the American self-concept is that we exist as a result of overthrowing an aristocracy. He noted our “democratic manners” and that “the distinctions of rank in civil society are slight.” The historian Samuel Huntington reminds us that our first, archetypal enemies were tyranny, monarchy and aristocracy.
John de Crevecoeur, describing America to Europeans during the time of the Revolution, wrote that our vocabulary is “but short in words of dignity, and names of honour.” To whatever extent we can say that America has a civil religion, as John Murray Cuddihy wrote in 1978, it definitely consists of a “decorum of imperfection,” of giving “no offense” to others. We’re not big fans of kings or aristocrats. Despite our occasional infatuation with royalty across the pond and penchant for celebrity worship, Americans are liberals, in the classical sense.
It is surprising, then, that Obama has turned out to be more tone deaf than most politicians regarding the suffering of the American middle class. Many who voted for him in 2008 are turning away in 2012 because the presidency he promised is not what he delivered. For one thing, he has proven himself quite the elitist, and that his populism was a sham.
When, after one of her 2010 vacations, Michelle Obama was famously labeled “a modern-day Marie Antoinette”, her supporters went ballistic – but the label stuck, because the vacations continued for two more years.
When President Obama squeezed in 104 rounds between January 20, 2009 and August 4, 2012, knowledgeable observers might have thought, “well, Eisenhower played more than that,” but the press noticed, and it did not quite fit with the dire economic picture of the country as a whole.
As Democratic fundraiser and former MSNBC producer Matt Stoller recently asked, “what kind of America has he actually delivered?”
Under Bush, economic inequality was bad, as 65 cents of every dollar of income growth went to the top 1 percent. Under Obama, however, that number is 93 cents out of every dollar. That’s right, under Barack Obama there is more economic inequality than under George W. Bush. And if you look at the chart above, most of this shift happened in 2009-2010, when Democrats controlled Congress.
An appropriate capstone to Obama’s term, news broke the week before election day that spending on White House events has skyrocketed since 2009, which one government official said “takes your breath away” considering how many Americans are out of work. And to make matters worse, the Washington Examiner shortly thereafter reported that the co-owner of an event planning company that orchestrates the exorbitantly expensive White House state dinners is also deputy chief of protocol in the U.S. State Department, the office which “oversees and pays for all White House events involving foreign dignitaries.” A House committee is now investigating.
In the area of ethics, the Times reported last week that Anita Dunn, an Obama communications director and senior campaign advisor, is also employed by SKDKnickerbocker, a communications firm representing corporate clients and lobbyists “willing to pay handsomely for help in winning over federal regulators or landing government contracts.” In addition to the 34 ethics pledge waivers granted by the president prior to March 2012, current top Obama advisors Erik Smith, Jim Margolis and Broderick Johnson have ties to firms assisting companies seeking access to the federal government.
This was an unfortunate final reminder of the president’s promise to close the revolving door between lobbying and federal employment – a promise that was systematically broken by the Obama Administration beginning the day after the executive order was signed by the president.
And in the important area of race relations, where President Obama represented so much actual hope to so many Americans, it is hard to imagine any president leaving a worse legacy.
Prior to the official campaign season kick-off, Vice President Joe Biden told a black audience: “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
For anyone who thought such notions ridiculous, several days ago, a nine-year-old boy told an interviewer: “If Mitt Romney win, we’ll be going back to the crop fields.”
Among the reasons why former Obama supporter Camille Paglia said she would not be voting for him this year: “I thought that his election would promote racial healing in the country … I consider him, now, one of the most racially divisive and polarizing figures ever.”
Americans elected Barack Obama because they wanted a leader who would change the way things are done in the highest levels of government, and bring the country together after a period of deep division.
The American people instead got a leader who did neither, and fact perpetuated inequality – not only through his policies but through the symbolism of his own family’s extravagant lifestyle – and left the country more deeply divided than when he took office. In what we should hope is his final controversial moment of this term in office, President Obama told an audience of his supporters: “Voting is the best revenge.”
Rather than light and hope, it’s us versus them, a portent of bad things to come, a dark cloud of fear descending on the close of this presidency.
The extravagances available to any US president are mind-boggling, and the pressures to obtain a second term in office come from many directions, so it is unfair to lay the blame for all that has been wrong with the institution of the presidency the past four years on this one man. Few US presidents would qualify for sainthood even by the low standards of civil religion.
There were some 42 kings of ancient Israel, in the united period and during the southern and northern kingdoms, and only 13 or 14 were recorded as good (at least as broad-brushed by the authors of the books of Kings and Chronicles – sacred history, as they say, is written by the vicars). A careful reading of the history gives the impression that the people themselves were equally responsible for the bad outcomes over the centuries.
A summary of this term of the Obama presidency might be that we Americans, like the Israelites, got the leadership we deserved. In the future, we should ask for better.