By Drew Zahn
First Lady Michelle Obama
The first lady of the United States is not elected, has no constitutional duties and receives no salary, but that doesn’t mean the position is without its privileges – including a staff of 22 White House employees who make a combined nearly $1.5 million per year.
Various journalists have scoured the White House’s annual report to Congress on the West Wing payroll and listed those names that serve as members First Lady Michelle Obama’s staff. Combined, their salaries total $1,495,700.
By comparison, a similar examination of the 2008 payroll, printed in the Washington Post, shows First Lady Laura Bush tallied 17 staffers, who combined made roughly $1.28 million.
News of so many taxpayer-funded salaries attending the first lady – which doesn’t include the White House servant staff or the Secret Service detail assigned to the first family – has prompted some commentators to question if so many staffers are necessary.
“[Michele Obama] doesn’t perform any official duties. But this hasn’t deterred her from hiring an unprecedented number of staffers to cater to her every whim and to satisfy her every request in the midst of the Great Recession,” writes author Paul Williams in a July 7 editorial. “Mary Lincoln was taken to task for purchasing china for the White House during the Civil War. And Mamie Eisenhower had to shell out the salary for her personal secretary. How things have changed!”
As first lady, Michelle Obama has been criticized for various purported “extravagences,” including a $540 pair of designer sneakers she wore to visit a D.C. food bank in April and a shopping trip in Paris with her daughters, for which French President Nicolas Sarkozy bent the nation’s laws by asking the boutiques to open for the Obamas on Sunday.
The Paris shopping trip, and a similar jaunt through the streets of London, were part of a highly controversial European vacation that the first lady took with her daughters in June, sparking a firestorm of questions about the reported 20 taxpayer-funded Secret Service vehicles parading through Europe with the first lady and the costs of transporting the security detail overseas.
Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, told the Boston Globe that few Americans would begrudge the first family some presidential perks – as long as the expenses don’t grow to be indulgent on the taxpayer’s dime. Paige did, however, criticize the White House for failing to report how much Americans paid for the first lady’s vacation.
“I doubt we’ll see the true cost of the trip to Paris,” Paige said. Not keeping his promise to run a transparent government, she added, “has been a disappointment, to say the least.”
Since 1995 the White House has been required to report to Congress details of most of the West Wing payroll. Those listed that are assigned to the first lady carry various titles, including chief of staff, White House social secretary, director of communications for the first lady, director of scheduling and advance for the fist lady, special assistant and personal aide to the first lady, and various deputies to the directors, among other titles.
The highest paid of Michelle Obama’s assistants is her chief of staff, Susan Sher, who makes the maximum allowed for a White House staffer at $172,200. The entire list of the First Lady’s assistants can be seen, among other places, printed in a column by Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet.
In May, before a crowd of business executives in Washington, D.C., Michelle Obama called her current life in the White House “a very blessed situation, because I have what most families don’t have – tons of support all around, not just my mother, but staff and administration. I have a chief of staff and a personal assistant, and everyone needs that.”
According the to a Washington Post report, she reiterated with a laugh, “Everyone should have a chief of staff and a set of personal assistants.”