Milbank: Presidential salary sacrifice mostly a feeble gesture
"President Obama plans to give up 5 percent of his salary this year to draw attention to the financial sacrifice of more than 1 million federal employees who will be furloughed."
- The Washington Post, April 4
"Here's the plan. We get the warhead and we hold the world ransom for ONE MILLION DOLLARS."
- Dr. Evil in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery"
WASHINGTON - At the annual White House Easter Egg Roll last week, President Obama decided to shoot some hoops with the kids, and wound up going only 2-for-22.
The abysmal field goal percentage - 9 percent - would get him hooted out of any neighborhood rec center. Yet even that paltry percentage is better than Obama is shooting for victims of federal budget cuts. They get only 5 percent from Obama.
Federal workers face unpaid furloughs because of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. That's a serious economic hardship for many middle-class families, and whether or not Obama actually intended for it to happen, it's a direct result of a bill he signed into law.
And so the White House announced that Obama, "to share in the sacrifice being made by public servants," would return 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury. The gesture, matched by several Cabinet members, was meant to be symbolic. But the amount - $20,000 of his $400,000 salary - is so little for a man made wealthy by his political fame that it comes across as patronizing.
Obama and his wife reported income of $8 million his first three years in office, largely from royalties on his memoirs, which were best-sellers because of his political fame. And the Obamas will soon go from rich to filthy rich. Bill Clinton earned $89 million in speaking fees in his first 11 years out of the White House, according to an analysis of disclosures done last year by CNN. He had received an average of $189,000 per appearance - a record Obama will be in a good position to match after his term ends.
For a man worth millions and soon to be worth tens of millions, $20,000 is not much of a sacrifice.
This should matter a great deal more than jump shots for Obama, who won re-election largely by beating Mitt Romney in the empathy department. In 2012 exit polls, voters who said they were primarily voting for the person who "cares about people like me" chose Obama over Romney, 81.2 percent to 17.6 percent. Obama lost among voters who were primarily seeking the traits of "strong leader," "vision for the future" and somebody who "shares my values."
Certainly, sequester insensitivity isn't Obama's problem alone. House Republicans championed legislation that would have cut off pay to members of Congress if they didn't pass a budget, but there has been little sentiment to share in the sequester pain. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth was put last year at $26 million or more, said that taking a pay cut wouldn't "respect the work we do" and was beneath "the dignity of the job." There's no word yet on whether House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or Vice President Biden will join in the sacrifice.
There are a few exceptions, including the admirable case of Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a first-term congresswoman and a double-amputee from the Iraq war. She's cutting her own pay 8.4 percent - closer to the level many of her constituents will feel from the sequestration cuts. But she's the rare case: The Hill newspaper surveyed all Senate offices and found that only five senators, two Republicans and three Democrats, were giving up some pay.
A pay cut could be painful for members of Congress who rely on their $174,000 annual salaries. But many if not most of them will eventually cash in on their government service, taking corporate or lobbying jobs. And nobody has more earnings potential from his government service than the president. Shouldn't they all be taking better care of the millions whose public service has just as much "dignity" but who don't get rich from it?
During the First and Second World Wars, there were "dollar-a-year men" who left lucrative private-sector careers to serve their country in Washington. If Obama really wants to share in the furloughed workers' "sacrifice," he should follow that honorable example and give back all but a dollar of his $400,000 salary. In a few years, he'll be able to earn it back with a couple days' work.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.