Over the weekend, former President Barack Obama announced plans for a lavish birthday party at his Martha's Vineyard estate. The bash will attract around 500 guests, to be entertained by the rock band Pearl Jam, and served by a staff of 200.
The announcement makes a mockery of heightened COVID-19 restrictions being imposed around the country. Even if the outdoor event is safe, the prospect of well-connected Democrats partying while ordinary Americans contemplate rising hospitalizations, mask mandates, and even renewed lockdowns is unseemly.
Public health hypocrisy isn't the only problem. Obama is just the most recent president who adopted a plutocratic lifestyle after leaving office, partly at public expense. Former presidents enjoy benefits and subsidies worth millions of dollar annually under the Former Presidents Acts.
It's always been a bit fraudulent. The FPA was passed in 1958, partly due to the influence of Harry Truman. Truman claimed he was broke after decades of public life, a claim echoed in David McCullough's bestselling biography. But new scholarship finds that Truman was very rich by the standards of his time. In addition to a fortune earned by sale of his memoirs, Truman may have embezzled funds from the White House expense account.
In addition to Truman's lobbying, the FPA was passed because some earlier presidents struggled to earn a living after leaving office. American history is haunted by the image of Ulysses S. Grant, furiously composing his bestselling (and brilliant) memoirs as he was dying of cancer. It's reasonable to provide ex-presidents a pension. And it's probably necessary to guarantee some level of Secret Service protection.
But benefits should be means-tested against other income. Ex-presidents who make big bucks from book deals, speaking fees, or borderline scams don't deserve additional public support. Truman was right: We don't want public service to be a path to bankruptcy. But ex-presidents haven't earned the right to party like rock stars.