Jacob Heilbrunn

Does Obama Get Too Many Presidential Perks?

Is President Obama getting too perky? That seems to be the latest charge directed at him from the right. Michele Bachmann, speaking at CPAC, thundered that Obama is living high off taxpayer money, complaining that he has five chefs on Air Force One and even a presidential dogwalker. Confronted by CNN, however, she punted, blathering on about how the real issue was that Obama messed up in Benghazi. Bill O'Reilly has gone on to bash Bachmann and others--"cut the nonsense"--for failing to focus on the real issue--Obama's handling of the economy.

The source of these allegations is one Robert Keith Grey, a staffer from the Eisenhower administration, who introduces himself as "Bob." He's the author of a book called Presidential Perks Gone Royal: Your Tax Dollars Are Being Used For Obama's Re-election. He's an old codger and doesn't make the best case for himself in this video. Bob, if I may use the informal address, wants to appear folksy, but doesn't appear entirely confident of his case. He strains somewhat for effect--he even trots out the presidential dog walker story, claiming that someone on Obama's staff is paid over $100,000 to keep his cuddly Portuguese water dog named Bo exercising. Not so. It appears that the White House gardener takes him for a stroll. As has always been the case. It's also the case that Bo was the star of the 2012 presidential Christmas card. Did the White House waste too much money snapping his photo?

The problem that Grey has is that he is trying to pin the blame on Obama. That's unfair. But he actually could have made a broader case. The real problem--an ongoing problem--is that we treat presidents like royalty. The British thinker Walter Bagehot divided democratic government into dignified and efficient branches. The monarchy represents the country; the prime minister runs it. In America we don't make that distinction. The presidency is both ceremonial and governing. So the presidency is treated with reverence, which isn't necessarily the way the founders wanted it.

The cold war has greatly exacerbated this tendency. With the emergence of the atomic bomb, the president really does have life or death power over human civilization. So his importance has been further magnified.

All this translates into the kind of perks that Grey is talking about--an enormous White House staff, presidential limos, helicopters, airplanes. The president gets to live like a potentate. Given the stresses of the job, you could say that it's small potatoes next to what's demanded of a president.

But Grey is on to something. The more the president is treated like a monarch, the greater the powers he (or, eventually, a she) will assume. This was surely the case in the recent flap about drones. Senator Rand Paul drew a clear distinction between our democratic form of government and a despotism. The president, he noted, doesn't have the authority, will-nilly, to aim a drone at whomever he deems a threat inside American borders. That would turn him into judge, jury, and executioner.

This isn't the debate that Grey is trying to promote. Instead, by raising a host of picayune objections aimed at depicting Obama as living larger than he deserves, Grey and his ilk are further debasing American democracy. If the right wants to attack Obama, it will have to do better than to pick on his dog. Doggone it!