The Obamas' Federal income tax return for 2009 is now media fodder. (Another reason not to run for president.) They made a lot of money, though it didn't come primarily from your pocket unless you bought one of his books. But here's what I want to know: Does our president support his words with his actions?
One of my complaints about politicians is their penchant for enhancing their reputation for generosity by being charitable with other people's money. (See the Daley Ponderings discussion about Davy Crockett.) Oddly enough, the more a politician is known for wanting to spend tax money on charitable causes, the less willing he seems to spend his own money in a similar fashion—a lesson not easily forgotten if one has lived in Massachusetts. As I reported in How Much Should the Rich Pay in Taxes?,
- In 2007, President George W. Bush and his wife had an adjusted gross income of $923,807...and donated $165,660 to charity—or 18 percent of their income.
- Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, earned between $200,000 and $300,000 a year between 2000 and 2004, and they donated less than 1 percent to charity. When their income soared to $4.2 million in 2007, their charitable contributions went up to 5 percent.
Here's the question: In 2009, were the Obamas as generous with their own money as they want to be with ours?
First take, the simple answer, from their 65-page long tax return. Adjusted gross income: $5,505,509. Charitable contributions: $329,100. That's a paltry 6%. Not very impressive, considering that the Christian minimum is 10% with more expected of those who have more to give. Not that we all live up to that, but it is nonetheless the standard. Surely one should be able to expect more from the nation's #1 political role model.
Take two, digging deeper. Neither the AGI nor the charitable deduction reflects President Obama's Nobel Prize winnings of $1.4 million, which he gave away entirely. (One of the recipients, by the way, was Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute.) This changes the figures dramatically: income $6,905,509, charitable giving $1,729,100, a much more impressive 25%.
So—are they generous folk with their own money? You can call it either way. Perhaps it would be better to judge by next year's filing, as it's arguable that the Nobel Prize introduced an anomaly into the system.
But the biggest lesson here is not a judgement on the Obamas' personal versus public charity, but how easy it is to grab either the 6% or the 25% and run with it much further than it deserves to be taken.