On Presidential Vacations and Taxation

My friend at sachemspeaks posted a concise, correct, and thought provoking title the other morning: “This president is not a god folks.”

The impetus for his title came from an article by Joan Walsh in Salon and in particular the comments made about this article, “The Magical President doesn’t exist: What the left must really do to defeat the wingnuts.”

Perusing the comments, one sees a rehash of talking points.

President Obama golfing and his “nonstop” vacations all at the expense of the American taxpayer:

To clarify the financial aspects, the President pays the personal expenses, food, lodging, and incidentals for him and his family. Taxes do, however, pay for staff and Secret Service although this expenditure also happens when the President is at the White House or anywhere for that matter. The greatest cost for most presidential travel is Air Force One which the CRS has estimated to be in the neighborhood of $180,000 per hour to operate. One of the more concise sources for additional information is this CRS publication, “Presidential Travel: Policy and Costs” prepared by L. Elaine Halchin.

Vacations are nothing new for Presidents. Obama is not the first, and neither was Bush. Nancy Reagan offered one the best assessments in defending her husband, “Presidents don’t get vacations; they just get a change of scenery.” The President continues to receive briefings, conduct their radio broadcasts, and to deliver news conferences. It’s a 24/7 job regardless of their physical location, and the responsibilities do not stop. One example I often give in recent US history courses is that Ronald Reagan made his decision regarding air traffic controllers while on “vacation” in 1981.

Modern politics seems to encourage selective memories, so for recent times here is a feature from Yahoo News using data provided by CBS correspondent Mark Knoller to compare President Obama to his predecessor President Bush.

While numerous differences exist making such historical comparisons to the present akin to comparing apples to oranges here are a few examples of other Presidents “away from the office.” President John Adams left the capital (Philadelphia at the time) to go to his home in Massachusetts for approximately 4 months due to an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia. He spent another 4 months at his home in Massachusetts when his wife Abigail became ill even with the United States on the brink of a war with France. Abraham Lincoln spent nearly a quarter of his presidency away from the White House to benefit from the cooler conditions with the breezes at the Soldier’s Home near the Park View and Petworth neighborhoods in Washington. Before the US entered the 2nd World War FDR formalized the Lend Lease Act while on a fishing trip in the Caribbean.

Here is a short photographic gallery of other Presidents on vacation.

Obama’s taxes hurt the economy and stifle American business:

The obvious questions are how does this President and what prior President has ever controlled taxation? I cannot answer the first because of Constitutional readings, and the second one might argue George Washington. I preface that with might because Congress did pass the tax at the request of Alexander Hamilton and ultimately George Washington with Hamilton and Virginia Governor Henry Lee led Federal troops into Pennsylvania to collect taxes owed to the Federal government.

As for the Constitutional response, the power of the purse rests with Congress. Spending and taxes both come from Congress. That’s at the Federal level. Any local and state taxes are determined at those levels and not by the President or even Congress.

Many will argue, and argue correctly, that this source referencing tax obligations is partisan but look at the rates and decipher them yourself.

Here are links to brackets from the Tax Foundation and the Tax Policy Center.

Mediamatters is partisan, but many other sources contend that between the combined burdens of federal, state, and local income taxes, Americans today are parting with the smallest share of their income since 1958.

Again I’ll propose that it’s difficult to make concrete comparisons among historical periods without addressing the vast array of variables. I’ve heard well-presented arguments on both sides about the current tax rates. I have more detailed posts elsewhere on this blog, but I believe that we must shorten and clarify our tax code before any lasting changes in rates can be established.

One example I give to numerous governmental officials is that when a history professor can walk over to faculty offices in accounting and business and give colleagues, excellent teachers and researchers in their disciplines, and who are also CPAs the same documents to prepare a representative tax return, and they all compute a different bottom line on what is owed by using and not using various possible deductions something ain’t right. Seriously one can compute a large refund and another a substantial amount owed and both are technically correct. Statistics might be the easiest math to manipulate to “prove” whatever you want, but accounting must be the simplest math where 2 + 2 doesn’t have to be 4.

When an honest individual who wants to pay what they owe cannot be sure of the amount then how can an opportunist or crook know if he or she has taken advantage of every credit and deduction and twisted them to not just zero out their liability but to receive a refund. Search some corporations of your own choosing and see how many receive tax refunds on top of their substantial earnings just by using legal tax methods. Some will argue that is good business, but who then is financing the public services they receive?

Jokes and sarcasm aside, like I wrote the other day, President Obama is danged when he does and danged when he doesn’t. As my friend wrote, he is not a god.

Barack Obama cannot solve everything and neither can he ruin everything. I cannot predict what will be written in the history books of the future, but my best guess is that Barack Obama will ultimately be in that category of “average” Presidents. He has strong points and weak points which I’ve addressed in other writings, and in my opinion the same is true of every United States President.

In my lifetime which would start with Nixon (the first President I remember as a child is Carter), I really don’t see any “great” Presidents and wonder if we will ever have another “great” one. Being that circumstances play a huge role in how a President is perceived, it might be best not to have another “great” one because that “great” label would likely result from response to a crisis or tragedy.