The President Gets Paid $400,000 a Year. The First Lady Should Too


At 1 p.m. Friday, first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden will travel to a clinic for war veterans in Montgomery, Maryland. Obama and Biden will speak to staff and patients to promote Joining Forces, a program they launched in 2011 to help veterans and their families as they try to re-enter civilian life after returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After that, it's back to the White House for a celebration of National Poetry Month. Obama will host an event featuring poet Elizabeth Alexander, who composed President Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural poem, before delivering remarks of her own to close the ceremonies.

A busy day by any standard, but the first lady won't earn a dime for her trouble.

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, put a finer point on the issue: "Michelle would point out first ladies get paid nothing," he said to laughs at a town hall-style event. "So there's clearly not equal pay in the White House when it comes to her and me."

Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

A larger issue: The president was using his wife's service to make a point about the Paycheck Fairness Act, a piece of Democratic legislation that would make it illegal for companies to take action against female employees who question gender-based pay gaps. Republicans have repeatedly blocked the bill in the Senate, and it's opposed by the Chamber of Commerce, which argues it would discourage hiring and lead to a rash of lawsuits.

With Congress at loggerheads, a simpler (and obviously less consequential) path becomes more appealing. The president should request an income for Michelle Obama and all future first spouses in the next White House budget — not because they need the money, but because it would send a powerful signal that equal pay is an important principle at the highest level of government.

For bipartisan support, he could channel GOP icon President Ronald Reagan, who in taking a question about his wife, Nancy, at a 1982 press conference, said, "You know, the government, with the first lady, gets an employee free." 

Even uniquely qualified and professionally accomplished people like Hillary Clinton, a high-earning partner at her Arkansas law firm when husband Bill was first elected in 1992, are often pressured to leave their jobs because of the potential conflicts of interest.

That issue was broached by former first lady Laura Bush, who in 2013 said "the interesting question is not whether [first ladies] should receive a salary, but should they be able to work for a salary."

Bush's point is a smart one, but it also presents a false choice. The husband or wife of a future president should be able to stay in the workforce, sure, but the work done either raising a child or children in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. or keeping a busy public schedule like Michelle Obama's (or, as with Obama, doing both), is worthy of legitimate compensation. 

Americans look to the White House for all kinds of leadership. Seeing a first spouse paid for his or her considerable toils would set a standard for young people as they grow into their own careers and begin to consider how to manage their evolving households.

h/t New York Times