I suppose it is unfair from one standpoint. A year ago, Vice President Michelle Obama made nearly twice as much money at her job at the University of Chicago as her husband did as a United States Senator. But now Mr. Obama is the breadwinner of the family, while the Mrs. makes nothing. That fact is bound to annoy a feminist, so as Dana Goldstein reports in the April issue of The American Prospect, there is talk about giving the First Lady her own salary.
Goldstein quotes a feminist blogger on the subject: "We view [Obama's] election as a labor contract between not just Barack Obama and the country, but also between Michelle Obama and the country....Yet she is not getting paid, because she is really viewed as part and parcel of him."
A historian writing in the San Francisco Chronicle offers a dissenting viewpoint."Living 'only' on the president's $400,000 salary, however, [the Obamas] make eight times as much as the average American household....It's hard to see why they need a second income."
Goldstein leans toward the feminist viewpoint. Need has nothing to do with it, she suggests. The main point, as far as she's concerned, is that being First Lady is a job. "The job of first lady is so crucial that our one bachelor president, James Buchanan, appointed his niece to carry out the traditional duties," she notes. But somehow I have a feeling that Buchanan would not have thought of the traditional hostess duties as "crucial." I do not recall him putting his niece in charge of any special task force or sending her as his representative to foreign countries or secessionist states -- though she most likely could not have done worse as a "co-president" than Buchanan did all by himself.
But consider Mrs. Obama's work, Goldstein insists. She has already "embarked upon an unprecedented tour of federal agencies. She addressed tens of thousands of bureaucrats, thanking them for their service and discussing how her husband's economic-stimulus package would improve each department's work."
Goldstein is convinced that Mrs. Obama deserves something for all that arduous effort, but she also sees the opposing point about Mr. O's salary being quite enough for the whole family. Her solomonic solution, pitched to please feminists and budget hawks alike, is to pay the First Lady out of her husband's pocket. "The salary for the first lady should be garnished from her husband's wages," she proposes, "Since we expect our presidents to be just one half of a 24/7 public-relations team, why not pay the president less -- say $300,000 -- and make out the remainder of the check to his wife?"
I admit that I was tempted strongly to appoint Dana Goldstein as an Idiot of the Week. I spared her because it might be awkward to give that honor to someone whose article appeared in a monthly magazine. Instead, I'll create a special category and name Goldstein an April Fool. In doing so, I deny her premises every step of the way. We do not expect our presidents to be half of any team apart from the party ticket on Election Day. I, for one, do not view any President's election as a "labor contract" with his wife. And when Goldstein asks, "Considering the various social and political services the first lady ... renders to the United States, don't taxpayers owe her a salary?" I respond, "Who authorized her to render those services? What right has she to perform any political service? Where are her powers enumerated in the Constitution?" As conceived on the alleged model of the sainted Eleanor Roosevelt and the actual precedent of Hillary Clinton, the vestment of any kind of political power in the President's wife is nothing more than a royal prerogative, and that's un-American. The President's election entitles the President's spouse to nothing except shelter in the White House. Nor does it entitle the President to delegate any of his power or responsibility to the spouse.
But having stated my opinion, I approach Goldstein in the same spirit of compromise with which she proposed splitting the President's salary. I'll agree to pay the First Lady if I get to vote for her. The "two for the price of one" principle that prevailed in the Clinton years is against the spirit of the Constitution. It's bad enough that you have to vote for President and Vice-President together, but at least the running mate's name appears on the ballot, while the conjugal mate's does not. If people wish to make First Lady a responsible political office, that should change. And since we oppose the Bipolarchy practice of tying the President and Vice-President together on a party line, let's set an educational precedent by splitting the First Family ticket. There are, after all, people of conservative mind who might have embraced Mr. Obama more readily, as they might have Mr. Clinton, had they not thought that their wives wanted more power than their due. Why not give such people the chance to vote for the best man and the best woman, even if they're not man and wife? If we aren't to think of the First Lady as merely the President's wife anymore, why should that important post go automatically to the President's wife? Why not instead elect the most worthy woman (presuming the President to be a man and a heterosexual -- or must we?) who is not running for the top job herself? Since there are no term limits currently in writing for the First Lady, why not retain good old Laura Bush as a modest national hostess, or why not recruit Governor Palin to enact the politico-sexual fantasies of Hustler magazine? I don't think I've yet exhausted the possibilities. Sometimes when you've got a toboggan the slippery slope is fun. On to the Constitutional convention!...or else you can all shut up about such silliness as paying the President's wife.