Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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NOVEMBER 3, 2009 10:21AM

The Obamas, the Date Night, & the Public Purse

Rate: 12 Flag

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.


Vaguely related previous posts:

  1. The Wrong Obama 
  2. Is it Time To Ground Air Force One?



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Forget for a minute that Michelle didn't want him to run for president. Forget for a minute she is once again doing all the child-raising, emotional work, etc. I don't see good things happening for them once he's out of office - she's young and too much water may just go under that bridge. Great analysis.
But he is, after all, a head of state. Would you prefer that he not have Secret Service protection and flew coach? Given his office, he couldn't forgo those costs if he wanted to. Are you saying he shouldn't travel? As to fund raising trips, they are a necessary evil in our system. The percentage allotted to political expenses varies with each trip. You know, every head of state is subject to these types of "perks" if you will. Given our GNP, and the federal budget as a whole, the amount spent on presidential travel is a grain of sand in the desert.
Aren't there decent restaurants in D.C.? I don't think many people in D.C. routinely go to New York for dinner. I don't mind that he has a date night, but it should be reasonable like most of us do.
Hubby and I live in 2 different COUNTRIES. When we do a week night date night he flies into Toronto, I drive to Toronto and pick him up and we have dinner, etc... in Toronto. We do those a couple times a year.

Weekend date nights... the most usual course is for me to feed all the kids and then he and I retire to the "guest house" (Converted from an OLD carriage house) where we fix dinner together and make/take time for one another.

In a way I feel for the Obama's... in another way though I don't. They VOLUNTEERED to have their privacy invaded... should have thought of the fact that they can't even fart without it being "National News" BEFORE he threw his hat into the ring.
Much ado about nothing. Here's a politician who has family values. He's not off to Argentina to visit his lover.

While the NY Times piece was vapid, vapidity achieved a new void today. Sorry but I can't rate this. I usually enjoy your writing, Heather.

This was a dud.
I'm wondering where these posts were when Bush and his minions were racking up millions of dollars of expenditures at taxpayer's expense. Oh, I forgot. That's different.

Obama and his wife must make do with Netflix and takeout and someone will surely find a way to criticize them for that, too.
This post seems needlessly whiny. Is everyone supposed to be netflixing just because some people are out of work? Isn't it a better example for the President to continue to spend money like a normal consumer (considering that millions of people follow his example)? Yes, people in DC go to NYC for Date Nights. People all over the Northeast section of the country do so - it's a result of how easy travel is in that part of the country. It's surprisingly normal.

Also, perhaps it wouldn't cost so damn much if people would stop showing up to his events with guns. Just sayin'.
@perdidochas -- There are, but the lobbyists usually take all the good tables.
I wonder how much it cost to set the Bushes up for 2-3 mos at that ranch, or in Kennebunkport? I'd rather have a Pres. that does have a personal life still (which will cost us money, since he can't even go get takeout without costing us money) but is at least present in DC and officially on the job a greater part of the time.
This is the type of thing for which the phrase "tempest in a teapot" was invented.

Any time POTUS leaves the White House grounds, for any reason, he must have s security detail, and no matter where he goes, there are advance teams. It comes with the territory. It is part of the expense of having a POTUS. No serious person can suggest that the President should only leave the White House except for official business. So given that it's reasonable to expect that Obama is, sooner or later, going to set foot off the grounds for business that is not technically part of his office, you have now enetered upon the slippery slope of judging what's reasonable and what isn't. Is it any less expensive for the secret service to do advance work for a restaurant in DC than it is for one in New York? Not by any amount that is significant.

So now it's down to quibbling about the cost of flying the President and First Lady to New York for the evening. Well, sure, flying the President anywhere is expensive. He can't just hop the shuttle from National airport to LaGuardia like other folks. So, you can make a case for the notion that the President could have just as easily had his "date" within the confines of the District and saved the taxpayers about $50K - $100K.

We could also dispense with much of the White House staff. Surely the Obamas can, like most americans, heat food up in the microwave or use a crock pot? And really, can't the Obamas do their own laundry? I mean, why didn't we think of this sooner? We could get rid of the national debt if we would only force our President to live within the means we expect of any other average american.....

And here is where the argument falls completely apart. The Obamas are not you and me. They are the President of the United States and the First Lady of the United States. And yes, that job comes with some rather hoity-toity trappings, like a private jet and a personal chef and a big white house with beautiful antiques. We outfit that position with a little extravagance because (a) it's a very hard job and the person doing it needs a little extra support, and (b) he's a head of state and a little pomp and circumstance is part of the job description, suggesting the seriousness with which we expect him to be taken as he represents our country.

I'm a little tired of the notion that when Republicans are in the White House three month jaunts to the ranch in Texas (which must be fully outfitted with the latest security on the taxpayers dime) are okay, but one little date night in New York when a Democrat is in the big chair is somehow self-indulgent or wasteful.

If extravagant date nights become the norm in this White House, then maybe it's time to complain. But until then, I fear you're getting played by a media machine that loves to find controversy where there is none in order to sell ad space, and a GOP machine that loves to find fault with Obama where there is none in order to score political points.
"Forget for a moment that if it were his party out of power, he'd damn well be making the same complaints."

This is as far as I got. If you can provide any reference to when President Obama complained about the money bush used hopping around from one fundraiser to the other then go ahead, lets read it. Otherwise it's just more rovian propaganda.
Heather, you're a fantastic writer, but I don't agree with you here. I am a big fan of the Obamas, of their family values, and of their strong marriage. This is our President and First Lady here. I want them to have a wonderful night out. They deserve it.
Unlike those who disagree with you, Heather, I'm not a fan of President Obama's but I see both sides of this issue. I agree with him having a family life and being able to take his wife on a date. However, I also agree with Deboarh about Michelle being marginalized, having never wanted this life in the first place. She reminds me of my mother who moved from town to town, state to state every time my father became pastor of a new church.

Why is women who always make the sacrifices? Have to wonder what would have happened if Hillary had won and Bill had to give up something.
do you think bush flew to crawford for free?

i'm really asking.
I must agree with OESheepdog. You weren't on the money, as it were, on this one.
Liz Emrich nailed it. Sorry, Heather, you are waaaaaaay off the mark on this one.
Interesting that the only time people give a flying fuck about something like this is when a Democrat is in office. Did everyone get this wound up when W spent his first 9 months in office going on vacation and pretending to clear brush from his fake ranch?
"Is everyone supposed to be netflixing just because some people are out of work?"

Why not? Obama wants us to share the wealth, why not spread the poverty around, too?

I love Stellaa's reference to "years of service." In Obama's case, it's more like months.
Part of being Head of State is dealing with this stuff. I don't think in these economic times he should spent one million dollars to go to New York. Why can't he just go to the incredibly fancy place in Georgetown?

I voted for BHO but I am driven crazy by his elitist attitudes on some things. Yes I believe he should travel. Yes I believe he should spent time with his wife.

But for gawds sake he has to be aware about how something looks.

Isn't it great we live in a country where we can accuse our first black president of being an elitist? Almost as fun as calling our last president, educated at Yale, grandson of a Connecticut senator and son of a president, a redneck?
I don't think many people in D.C. routinely go to New York for dinner. -- perdidochas

Hell, my kids used to drive to NY from the DC burbs for the occasional haircut at the Astor. To bring it into my current, more provincial frame of reference, it's not that different from driving from the Twin Cities to my brother's cabin in northern Minnesota. And it's not like they do it every weekend.

As for Netflix - they get first run movies. Why would they do Netflix? This is silly. (Sorry Heather, it just is.)
Sorry all you dissenters, but this blog makes an excellent point.

Obama is wasteful, not only personally, but with entire US economy. It is appalling that in the middle of the worst US Depression (worse than the thirties because of the paradigm shifts this is coming in the middle of, not to mention a melting planet), that both Obamas would be so tone deaf to the national psyche as to do something as stupid and expensive as a $215K date night.

Save for after the White House folks, and get back to reality.

I'm sorry Obama is such a sexist, but that's Michelle's problem on a personal level, and ours to kick Obama in the ass over.

And finally, it shows how little Obama really cares about the American people. THE ENTIRE DOMESTIC BAILOUT equals just one year in Afghanistan, a war we are going to lose.

How's that for spending priorities?

Not to mention that Obama and Co, not to mention the rest of Congress are up to their necks in ethics scandals, including shepherding money to their own relatives that they previously approved in earmarks. On both sides of the aisle.

And even making the comparison to George Bush is stupid. Unfortunately Obama IS ALOT like GW. See his absolute stupidity on the bank bailout, his continuing search for expanded Executive Privilege, his support of FISA, his undermining of FOIA, his dependence on a corrupt system to begin with, and not to mention the "boy's club" of the White House.

Folks, although I voted for him, Obama is a fraud. And in my dealings with the government, at all levels, we have just entered perhaps the most dangerous phase of our fragile democracy.

Obama is a fraud, a fake, a sexist, a spendthrift, corrupt and undemoctratic.

DATE NIGHT is only one aspect of this asshole's attitude. Which is I'm smarter than everyone else on the planet, I'm going to use force to enforce my ways, and I don't give a flying f*ck about anybody but myself. Not to mention covering my ass when I do break the law (or my buddies do), by hiding behind Executive Privilege and undermining FOIA.

He's an overprivileged, spoiled, twit, who shares the same attitude both Congress and the agencies do. They have forgotten that THEY WORK FOR US. Not the other way around. And it's appalling that presidents, no matter what the party, not to mention Congress and any goverment worker on the payroll of THE US TAXPAYER, would do something so stupid and spoiled.

One look at Obama's illegal actions in office, not to mention his track record only reinforce this point.

Public office is TO SERVE THE PUBLIC. Not to get rich off of the American taxpayers. Or even waste their money on stupid trips like this.
You said it!

(Netflix? I don't know, but, Redbox movies cost a buck and there is no monthly commitment.)
While I agree with all your dissenters in the comments (well, almost all), Heather, I don't think this is a subject on which they should be telling you that you're wrong (and out to lunch, a cheap lunch). This seems to me to fall more into the category of Different Opinions.

I personally like the sight of the Obamas over dinner as opposed to Bush clearing brush, but anything the prez does - breathing, for starters - costs the taxpayers $.

I agree with Marguerite on one item - getting out of Afghanistan - while disagreeing with her general tenor...but, yah know, talking $, the war probably keeps a whole lotta people employed, of which the troops are the smallest part. All that $ could go to health care, etc., but would it exist if the war stopped? Wars are always great employers, and to cease and desist might scuttle what's left of the American economy...
I am fine with listing expenses. It would be great if those expenses could be listed retroactively and include the costs for Bush to clear brush at his ranch.

However, I am not fine with the suggestion that the Obamas should practice austerity 100% of the time and do Netflix and takeout. The president has a job to do but he also has a wife and family. If the security constraints of the job keep him from dating his wife and paying attention to her then their marriage will suffer. He is at least setting an example as a husband of what many wives would want from their husbands -- to make it apparent that wives matter. He sets aside time to be with her. Marriages do not work in this country more often than they do work because people do not put the time and effort necessary into them to make them work.

So yes post the expenses but for all presidents not just this one to put them into perspective.
hmmm...I wonder why this particular POTUS gets this particular response?
Bush the fake brush clearer? no problem! Barack Hussein Obama as POTUS - - oh, terrible, terrible, how does it look that he takes his wife out for an expensive date?
I take issue with a number of his executive decisions. but, on the whole, he & Michelle are modeling healthy parenting and a healthy relationship.

this seems to make some folks quite...bitter.

so be it.
1. I think "date night" is an issue because it's been, basically, since the Reagans that we've had a couple in the White House that visibly likes each other. Both Bush first ladies looked terminally bored in the presence of their husbands about 95% of the time, and no one needs a rehash of the Clintons' marital woes. So suddenly, we have a a happy couple in the White House attempting to spend time together for the first time in 20 years and everyone is confused.

2. I think their "Date Nights" stand out to us because they need to leave home to have time alone together. They have two young children living in those family quarters with them and Michelle's mother. Time alone necessitates getting away once in awhile.

3. There is nothing elitist about leaving town to do something special with your partner. I teach in a Catholic school and my husband works in a manufacturing plant, and we get away together once every few months to a nearby city for some down time alone. The Obamas have enough money for that to be Broadway in NYC. Good for them. We can't do that living in the Midwest, but we might go to Kansas City (3 hours away) for a touring show (reservations made for December) or to Chicago (7 hours) for a concert (tickets bought for July). If that makes us "elite"--then I hope our paychecks catch up with that adjective soon.
I'm sure the White House Kitchen Staff could prepare a nice atmosphere and some excellent food. A good movie on what is probably a 100X100 inch screen would be pleasant as well. Good post.
i'll just keep waiting for an answer to what i asked. i don't know why the editors have decided to feature your work, but you don't seem to hold this audience you've received in very high regard.

if you're going to dog the president for taking his wife out, why can't you answer any of the comments you've gotten in return? does speech carry any responsibility?
I'm assuming this column is primarily in response to the NYC date and the attendent expenses. A lot of you seem to forget that Barack promised Michelle dinner and a show in NYC as a sign of his appreciation for her efforts in helping him win the presidency. Subsequent date nights have been lesser in scale and closer to DC.
Liz Emerich pretty much nailed it. The only thing wrong in her post is the fact the National Airport in Washington is now Reagan National
Airport, named in honor of a President who probably logged more time shuttling back and forth to his ranch than the the Obamas will doing "date night" if they live to be 110.