April 4, 2013

I once had a boss who was independently rich, and when I asked him for a raise, he turned me down, adding that he, too, had forsaken a raise that year. A surge of anger, resentment and sheer hatred welled up in me, and were it not that I needed the job, I would have gone for his throat. His unthinking and unthinkable attempt to make common cause with me brought to mind Anatole France’s observation that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Now it brings to mind Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama (EPA/Tannen Maury)
President Barack Obama (EPA/Tannen Maury)

The president yesterday announced that he would return 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury Department. This is an effort to make common cause with federal employees who may have to take a similar paycut. This is the way this tone-deaf White House put it:

The president has decided that to share in the sacrifice being made by public servants across the federal government that are affected by the sequester, he will contribute a portion of his salary back to the Treasury.

The president makes $400,000 a year. In addition, he is provided living quarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, several limos, a very nice (Rose) garden, an (Oval) office and some very nice bedrooms, one named for a former occupant, the late President Lincoln. The president also gets a $50,000 expense account and an additional $100,000 for travel. The average government worker, I dare say, does not get quite that much for travel and might have to live in his or her own home, invariably not on Pennsylvania Avenue, necessitating a tiring and expensive commute.

But wait: This president is independently rich. He is rich by dint of his own talent and industry, but rich is rich –- and you probably ain’t. Obama has made a small fortune in book royalties, and last year the president and Michelle Obama reported an adjusted gross income of $789,674. Without having to Google it, I can say that the Obamas made more than your average federal employee –- even including overtime.

So the $20,000 Obama is kicking back to the Treasury is a pittance that will not be missed. (What’s the difference between $789,674 and $769,674? Will the kids not go to camp? Is Hawaii out of the question for next summer? ) But 5 percent for someone making $100,000 is a different story. That’s five grand, and it well could be camp or a vacation. It is not chump change.

Obama was once poor –- although young and poor is not the same as old and poor –-  so I know he can appreciate what that 5 percent can mean. The president was apparently responding to the symbolism of him living like a pasha while asking others to sacrifice. I understand. But his taking a wee haircut on his salary is just a PR stunt from the White House that’s more insulting than it is empathetic.

RELATED: Dana Milbank on Obama’s feeble salary ‘sacrifice’

ALSO: A collection of Tom Toles editorial cartoons about Obama

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.