Jonathan Zimmerman: Obama should agree to a pay cut





In 2006, newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe voluntarily reduced his salary by 30 percent. That same year, Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, halved his own annual wage. And just a few months ago, Irish President Mary McAleese announced she would accept a 10 percent pay cut.

Are you listening, Barack Obama?

Let's hope so. Like other world leaders, Obama has urged citizens to sacrifice during tough economic times. So it's time for him to put his own money where his mouth is. When Obama becomes president on Jan. 20, he should accept a modest decrease in salary.

Believe me, he can afford it. At $400,000 per year, Obama will earn eight times as much as the average U.S. household. A 10 or 20 percent pay cut wouldn't put a very big dent in the Obama family's finances.

But it would make a big statement about what our new president really believes.

As everyone knows, Obama wants a massive economic-stimulus package from Congress. But he has carefully balanced these calls for more federal spending with cautions that Americans will have to make do with less.

"We're all going to have to tighten our belts," Obama said on the campaign trail in October. "We're all going to need to sacrifice. We're all going to need to pull our weight."

Likewise, after winning the election, Obama warned that he would cut the budget in some places even as he expanded it in others. "If we're going to make the investments we need, we must also be willing to shed the spending we don't," he declared.

So do we really need to pay our president $400,000?

Before George W. Bush, we didn't. Bill Clinton earned $200,000 as president. Just before he left the White House, however, he signed legislation doubling his successor's salary. (The Constitution bars Congress from raising or lowering a president's pay while he is in office.)

Remarkably, that was only the fourth raise in presidential history. George Washington made $25,000 in 1789, which remained the presidential salary until Ulysses S. Grant got $50,000 in 1873. The pay rose to $75,000 for William Howard Taft in 1909. Forty years later, Harry S. Truman earned $100,000. That doubled in 1969 for Richard M. Nixon, who made $200,000. And that's where the salary stood until 1999, when it was doubled again for our current president.

Surely, George W. Bush didn't "need" $400,000, either. But he also didn't tend to advocate shared sacrifice, as Obama has. Most notoriously, Bush urged Americans to "go shopping" after 9/11. And that's exactly what we did.

But these are different times, for America and for the world. Around the globe, only one national leader - Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong - makes more than the U.S. president. But even Loong accepted a 19 percent pay cut for next year in light of his nation's gloomy economic outlook.

Shouldn't Obama do the same? Like Bolivia's Morales, who earmarked the savings from his reduced salary for increasing teachers' pay, Obama could donate the saved portion of his salary to a worthy cause. Or he could simply leave it in the federal Treasury to help pay down the enormous debt we all are about to incur.

It wouldn't make a big difference in practical terms, of course. Symbolically, however, it would be huge. If our famously svelte president-elect wants Americans to tighten their belts, he should start with himself. The rest of us will follow.
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