The cover story in this weekend's New York Times Magazine was sedately entitled "The Obamas' Marriage," but might as well have been called "Oh My God I'm Hanging Out In the Oval Office With Barack n' Michelle!"
Jodi Kantor is hardly the first reporter to switch off her reasoning module in the presence of celebrity, and she managed to produce a nice pile of fluff to read over Sunday brunch. No harm done.
But the Date Night discussion irked me..
Early in her piece, Kantor presents President Obama "lamenting what has happened to nights out with his wife."
"I would say the one time during our stay here in the White House so far that has...annoyed me...was when I took Michelle to New York and people made it into a political issue."
He'd be just as happy to take the shuttle up and have a night in the Big Apple with "no fuss and no muss and no photographers,” he told Kantor. “That would please me greatly.”
“The notion that I just couldn’t take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with.” He allowed that everything becomes political, but “what I value most about my marriage is that it is separate and apart from a lot of the silliness of Washington, and Michelle is not part of that silliness.”
How do politicians do that? Don't they worry about lightening?
That whole conversation sounds great: this is a man who genuinely loves his wife, and whose wife genuinely loves him, God bless 'em. Those Mean Old Republicans are trying to get in the way of True Love, the dastardly dogs. Can't a President have any privacy with his lady?
Forget for a moment that this is a conversation taking place in the context of an image-burnishing interview on this supposedly "separate and apart" union. Forget for a moment that nobody forced Barack Obama to run for an office that garanteed his world and his family's world would shrink down to the size of a security zone for the better part of a decade. Forget for a moment that if it were his party out of power, he'd damn well be making the same complaints.
I don't know that people are particularly wrong to raise questions about the expense of that outing or any presidential expenditure not in the public interest.
Date Night involved days of advance work by security teams, the use of three small planes and two helicopters, plus the shutting down several streets and some ferry traffic during parts of the visit. The tab for presidential security is not made public, so estimates of the cost range from the absurdly low $25,000 to the more believable $73,000 to an absurd-but-sadly-still-believable $1 million.
Consider this: CBS News recently reported that in his first nine months in office, Obama has attended 23 fundraisers for the Democratic Party. This is compared to Bill Clinton, who made attended five in his first year, and George W., who attended just six.
Campaign finance laws require the Party to pick up some of the expense, but the lion's share is paid by the taxpayer. This is because fundraisers are usually pegged to "official" events, like a speech or town hall meeting, to both legitimize the trip and shift the costs, and because Secret Service costs are always paid out of the public purse.
It adds up. A 2006 Congressional oversight report found that in 2002, the Bush White House racked up $6.5 million -- just in flight expenses -- on political trips. Less than $200,000 needed to be reimbursed.
There is no reason not to release, in detail, how much a president, ANY president, spends on official and non-official travel. There's no reason for taxpayers not to question how that money is being spent. One would think this is a non-arguable point. It just makes sense.
A huge amount of public distrust of government stems from the sense that we're constantly being rooked by it. If the government, from the Executive Branch on down, was required to be more open about its operational expenses, those expenses would undoubtedly fall. Shame is a wonderful tool. We've trained generations of politicians to be shameless, and we need to reverse that trend.
As for the Obamas' Date Night, good for them. But with tens of millions out of work and untold millions more hanging on by a thread, maybe out of solidarity they could do what the rest of us are doing: Netflix and take-out.
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