It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to write a résumé for the job of President of the United States. Even more difficult would be the job interview: how exactly could you sit across from another human being and with confidence declare, “Yes, I believe I am qualified to be the leader of one of the biggest democracies in the world.” Admittedly, the normal process of applying for a job is nothing like running for the presidency of the United States.
One has to build a career like she or he would in any other industry, but in lieu of a normal job interview one has to go through the grueling process of a presidential election, which in the US run as long as two years, all things considered. That grueling process is what Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States (POTUS), had to endure in both 2008 and 2012, when he won the presidency against Republicans John McCain (2008) and Mitt Romney (2012).
Yet for all the unforgiving work that goes into an election, there is reward at the end of the tunnel: one of the most coveted job titles in the world, and a hefty paycheck each month to compensate for that job. This How Much Guide to the Obama’s salary and day-to-day work will give you all you need to know about the ins and outs of the life of a POTUS, and just how much the current president makes every year.
POTUS: What Goes Into the Job?
There is a lot of lofty rhetoric in the commonly known descriptions of the President’s job. The President is seen as, variously: “The leader of the free world,” “The most powerful person in the world,” etc. America is undoubtedly a major player in the world, even as the world is trending away from a “unipolar” political model (with one country standing out as the main “pole” of the global order) toward a “multi-polar” model. However, people too often attribute an omnipotence to the president, which obscures the less interesting realities of the job. Take this instructive cartoon:
The second of those two panels is absurd, and the first, while somewhat reductive in its vision of the president as only filling out paperwork, does touch on a major point: the president himself is at the behest of several other institutions in the government. Because the United States system is managed by checks and balances, the president does not have absolute authority over the country. He cannot change the price of stamps or set the country back to the gold standard simply because he wants to. The president is constrained by the law and checked by the other branches of government, such as the Judiciary and the Legislative (Congress and Senate).
The job of the president is too complex to explain in a single article, but in this brief summary, the most important thing that can be said about the job is that it is more about selling than it is creating. The major policy decisions of the United States in the past 30 years — the Iraq war, “ObamaCare,” the stimulus following the 2009 recession — didn’t happen because the president said, “I want this to happen.” They came about as a consequence of a lot of boring paperwork, jargon-heavy congressional meetings, and town hall gatherings across the United States. The president will usually express his opinion on these subjects, but he cannot singlehandedly instigate the change. The US government is a multifarious thing, and though the president’s role is a big one, he is still very much a cog in the machine.
When policies are put into place, or the US makes major international interventions like the war in Iraq, it is up to the president to be the face of those policies. He must sell to the citizens of his own country, and the world, that what the US is doing is a good thing. This is why the president goes to foreign countries to speak to citizens of the world, and why he addresses the nation when a significant event occurs (see Obama announcing Osama Bin Laden’s death). The word “figurehead” is somewhat correct for the president, but that term is not used here pejoratively; he is not a figurehead in that his post has no real power, but rather that his post is to own up to what the United States does. He becomes the synecdoche of the country. As the head of the Executive branch, he becomes America, and all of the eyes of the world are watching him.
POTUS’ Big Bucks: The Presidential Salary
It should come as no surprise that the president is well-compensated. People may find it easy to read about some political situation and think to themselves, “Oh, I have the perfect answer for that!” It’s another thing to imagine actually having that power; moreover, it’s an entirely different thing to have not just one political situation on your table, but rather all of them. Obama has to deal with a truly dizzying amount of potential distasters, be they home-grown or far-flung across the globe. He has to manage those things all the while putting on a good face for the American public, who will scrutinize his every move. It’s only natural that he be well paid; not many would last under the tough conditions of the presidency.
There is a distinction that needs to be made about the topic at hand: there is a difference between what Obama makes and what, generally speaking, a US President makes. Many factors can result in a president making more than successive or preceding presidents: for instance, Obama, having written many books, still collects royalties on his books like Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. A president cannot make new extraneous income while in office (which is one reason why presidential biographies are invariably released after a president has left office), but s/he can collect royalties or other previously established forms of wealth like investments.
With respect to what the US president makes — and this includes Obama — the Cornell University Law School points to Title 3, Chapter Two, Section 102, entitled “Compensation of the President,” which states that the President shall be paid the “aggregate amount of $400,000 a year, to be paid monthly,” as well as an expense account of $50,000 dollars for on-the-job related costs. (Any unused expense money goes back to the US Treasury.) This compensation comes in addition to numerous presidential perks, which include:
- Travel on Air Force One, the President’s private plane
- Lodging at the White House in Washington, D.C.
- Around-the-clock protection from the Secret Service for the president and all of his/her family members
The $400,000 dollar salary and all of the aforementioned perks are given to each president. Because presidents come from different political and personal backgrounds, they will also come in with alternative revenue streams that can augment the handsome compensation package for the POTUS.
In Obama’s case, there are some other details to consider. Take the chart below, which was originally published at Credit Loan’s Visual Economics:
Now, it’s worth noting that there are no sources provided in the Credit Loan piece on Obama’s salary, although some numbers — like the $400,000 annual presidential salary — that are easy to corroborate. There are some claims in the article that sound quite like the proven-false claims made by former Republican lobbyist Robert Keith Gray, such as the falsehood that taxpayers once spent 1.4 billion dollars per year on the Obama family. The Credit Loan piece, for instance, makes the claim that the Obamas get a $100,000 dollar entertainment budget, a number that few other sites corroborate. Some list only $19,000 for an “entertainment budget,” though it is not clear this exists.
The Credit Loan graphic above, however, is accurate in how it accounts for the royalties that Obama still gets from his hugely successful books. The Audacity of Hope was released not long before the then-Senator announced his intentions to run for the presidency; that combined with a glowing endorsement from Oprah Winfrey made it a runaway best seller. In an increasingly digitalized age, book publishing may not seem like an obvious place to go to make money, but major celebrities and public figures like Obama can do quite well with their publishing deals. Credit Loan notes that presidents also fare well after they leave office; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush received, respectively, 15 and seven million dollars for their post-presidential autobiographies, and Obama is projected to be offered 15 million for his (theoretically) soon-t0-be-published memoirs.
What that last fact highlights is that much of a president’s income won’t be received during his tenure as president; it will come after the fact. In addition to publishing deals, there is also the lucrative matter of speaking engagements. It is not uncommon for presidents to charge six-figure sums to those looking for an ex-president’s words on a given topic. In his novel Rant, Chuck Palahniuk writes that for some celebrities, dying can be “the best career move they could ever make.” Similarly, even though a president makes a considerable amount of money while in office, their money-making potential can be maximized after their time has run out.
When people hear how much Obama makes a year, they might be tempted to say, “For that much money, I’d love to be president!” But remember this all-important fact that was mentioned at the end of the first section of this piece: all of the eyes of the world are watching Obama. Sure, when America succeeds Obama will be put in a good light, but his status as the leader of America means that every failure of the US government becomes Obama’s failure. That kind of scrutiny is impossible to understand until you set foot into the White House and see for yourself how things really operate.