(The Root) — On Wednesday, news broke that President Obama was doing something that a lot of Americans have done in recent years: preparing to watch his income shrink. Only, unlike most Americans, the president is doing so voluntarily. Because of the sequester, many government workers may be forced to take unpaid leave, known as furloughs, which could have a devastating financial impact on them and their families. In a show of solidarity and empathy, the president has decided to return 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury.
It is a touching and noteworthy gesture, even though there will be critics, likely conservative ones, who question his motivation and the possible political calculation behind it. After all, the president has recently taken heat from conservatives for canceling White House tours for budget reasons while his family has enjoyed what some consider overly luxurious vacations. This criticism is, of course, ridiculous, but his most recent gesture does raise an interesting question: Is the president's salary move really significant for a man who makes as much as he does?
The president's salary is $400,000. To be clear, I am someone who defended the president's tax compromise that resulted in taxes not being raised on those making less than $400,000, even though many progressives balked. As I reasoned at the time, as unpopular as it may be to say out loud, a few hundred thousand dollars is not a lot of money for a family living in a high-cost metropolitan area, particularly with a son or daughter in a $30,000- to $50,000-a-year college or private school.
But while the president has two daughters in private school, he has the luxury of not having to worry about a major mortgage on his primary residence for the next couple of years — or his health insurance and a host of other expenses that those government employees worrying about being furloughed (and the rest of us) will. Furthermore, his presidential salary is not his only source of income. He made more than $1 million in 2010 from his book sales. So is $1,700 a month really that noteworthy a contribution? Yes, I know he didn't have to do anything. He should be applauded for the gesture.
But there is a part of me that looked at the $1,700-a-month figure and couldn't help thinking of celebrities who own cars that cost $100,000 or have a house so elaborate that they once showcased it on an episode of Cribs, but then are somehow supposed to be admired for donating $10,000 to a charity. It's nice, but it's certainly not extraordinary. Particularly when one considers that the first lady owns single garments that cost $6,000. (For the record, the jacket with that price tag is hands down one of the most beautiful pieces she has ever worn — so it's worth every penny, as far as I'm concerned.)
It is possible that the president and his family are saving up to donate even more to charity this year. His 2010 tax returns show that he gave more than $200,000 of his $1.7 million income to charitable causes. Perhaps he will do the same again this year.
But if our government doesn't reach some sort of sequester resolution soon, someone will have to start a charity to benefit furloughed federal workers. Perhaps a better idea is to make it mandatory that members of Congress and the president be forced to return a percentage of their pay each week, with the designated percentage increasing weekly, until the sequester is resolved. I have a feeling that if the president and other leaders faced the prospect of relinquishing more than a token 5 percent of their salary for an extended period of time, they would be motivated to compromise and find a solution fairly quickly.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.