The rate is set by Congress, and this most recent increase (although it happened 15 years ago) came as a part of the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act during the final days of the 106th Congress. In addition to an onsite medical team, which is available to presidents at all times during their stay in office, former presidents are also paid a pension and are entitled to optional Secret Service protection for the rest of their lives.
The most interesting thing about presidential salaries isn’t how much they earn, but what some presidents have chosen to do with their money. For example:
When President Kennedy took office in 1961, he was a very wealthy man. His family’s worth was around $1 billion at the time, and he himself had a multimillion-dollar trust fund. He certainly didn’t need the presidential salary ($100,000 annually with a $50,000 expense account, at the time) to get by. So, he donated it all to charity instead.
“President Kennedy’s entire salary is going to charity,” a newspaper reported at the time, according to Snopes. “Six charities benefited from the $94,583.32 the President received in 1961.” According to the Snopes piece, some of the recipients of his donations were the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, the United Negro College Fund, and the Cuban Families Committee.
Kennedy also donated the entirety of the salary he earned in Congress over the course of his 14 years in the House and Senate. Altogether, his charitable donations may have totaled as much as $500,000 over the course of his political career.
Other presidents, like Herbert Hoover, also donated their presidential salaries to charity. And, George Washington may have turned away the $25,000 granted him, at least initially, according to the Snopes piece. But, not all of our presidents have had enough money to make that choice.
President Obama famously declared just a few years ago, that he had only recently finished paying off student loans. Speaking to an audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he expressed how much he was able to empathize with the burden of shouldering this type of debt.
“Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes,” he said. “Check this out, all right. I’m President of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago. That wasn’t that long ago. And that wasn’t easy – especially because when we had Malia and Sasha, we’re supposed to be saving up for their college education, and we’re still paying off our college educations.”
Presidents have never been paid particularly well, especially when compared with some of the highest paid people of their day. Babe Ruth famously said when asked about his $75,000-a-year annual salary, “I know, but I had a better year than Hoover.” Today, the gap between star athletes’ salaries and that of the President of the United States is far more vast. However, even a century or more ago, some presidents really struggled to make ends meet, before, during, and after their terms in office.
Jefferson added more than $10,000 to his debt during his time as president, Harrison struggled financially throughout his adult life, and died after just a month after taking office, and Truman, who had lost his inheritance to a bad mining investment, was in debt for years and his difficult financial circumstances may have been Congress’s inspiration to raise the presidential pay to $100,000.
The stories of our nation’s presidents and their salaries are as diverse as the presidents themselves. But, they say a lot about these people, their lives, and their values.
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