How Presidential Salaries Work

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by my guest, staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace.

Candace Gibson: How's it going?

Jane McGrath: Pretty good. How are you?

Candace Gibson: I am gearing up for my Christmas shopping. I always like to do it early and beat the crowds.

Jane McGrath: Well, you're better than me.

Candace Gibson: I was thinking, what sort of job could I have that would give me carte blanche to buy whatever I want? And I was thinking, the more powerful you are, typically the more money you make. But I was like, "Well, what about the most powerful man in the country, in the free world, the U.S. President? He must have tons of money to work with.

Jane McGrath: You would think.

Candace Gibson: You would think. And then I was really surprised to find out that's not the case.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, not exactly. Presidents make - now it's about $400,000 a year. I mean, in scope, comparatively, in the private sector - it's not that great, I guess.

Candace Gibson: It's not. I mean, to me in my opinion, $400,000 is still a lot of money.

Jane McGrath: Sure. Sure. But considering his position, yeah!

Candace Gibson: Yeah, considering everything he has to do, it doesn't seem like that much. And like you mentioned, in the private sector, Bush is actually - or he was, actually - part owner of the Texas Rangers. And he sold that a couple of years ago, and I think he earned $14.9 million for it. And then Cheney is also independently wealthy. I think his net worth is around $30 million. And yet, again, $400,000 - and then the Vice President's salary is $208,100.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and talking about the President's salary, that hasn't always been the case. Obviously, it gets changed throughout the years to accommodate for inflation and stuff. But it actually doesn't get changed very often. The last time it was changed, Clinton made $200,000. But before that, it hadn't been changed since about '69. So for about 30 years, the President went without a pay increase.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, so in '69 it was $100,000 and then Clinton signed legislation back in 1999 for the increase to occur, I think, in 2001. And that's an important caveat. The President can't increase his own salary when he's in office.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And that's a little different, actually, if you look at Congress, for instance. Congress can actually raise their own salaries. And that's a pretty popular vote, you would imagine.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, I can't imagine anyone saying no to that. And for important and obvious reasons we see why the President can't change his own salary. But the First Lady, we've talked about before. She has no salary, but she gets a pension when her husband is out of office. It's $20,000 a year - which it sounds kind of meager, especially in comparison to the retired President's pension of $150,000. And then he also gets another $150,000 to maintain his staff.

Jane McGrath: And he can even go back. People ask, "Well, that's a lot of money to me. So do we really have to pay the President that much? Shouldn't he be in the job to be a good public servant to the public? And the framers actually considered this and they actually considered the possibility of giving legislators and Presidents no salary, but if that were the case it wouldn't attract people from the private sector who are talented people and are skilled. And it wouldn't bring them over and attract them to politics and that life.

Candace Gibson: That's a great point, especially if you think about the fact that it takes millions of dollars to even campaign for the office.

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Gibson: If someone wanted to run for President and there were no salary for the President, one would have to save up money and be independently wealthy in order to hold that office. And it's funny these days because we'd like to see equality. We'd like to see a fair even keeled person in the White House, and not many of us would get all up in arms for someone who is incredibly independently wealthy and was making promises to help out middle of the road Americans. It would seem like a big disparity.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And framers consider that it would actually incent the politicians to seek out corruption. I mean, I'm not saying that corruption is impossible today, even with their salaries, but making no salary they would certainly want to seek out underhanded ways to do that.

Candace Gibson: So I guess another argument would be that, if the President had no salary, he or she would still have an expense account. And yeah, that says something. The President does have an expense account.

Jane McGrath: And he has free home and board.

Candace Gibson: Exactly, he gets free room and board in the White House, which is a pretty nice place to have free board.

Jane McGrath: Not too shabby.

Candace Gibson: Not at all. And the Vice President's house isn't too shabby either. Very nice! Oh, gosh. It's this gorgeous Victorian mansion. I'm in love with it, even worse than the White House. But as far as their expense accounts go, that's pretty generous, too. The President gets $50,000 in expenses, $100,000 for travel, and then $19,000 for entertainment. And again, pretty sweet little package!

Jane McGrath: And the Vice President gets $10,000 in expenses.

Candace Gibson: And we know that entertaining - it may sound frivolous, and $19,000 may sound like an awful lot of money for entertainment. But it's really important. It's diplomatic, it's about protocol, it's ceremonial, it's really necessary for Washington.

Jane McGrath: And that's true. And especially considering Presidents have to bring around foreign diplomats and stuff like that. So they don't want to give off the impression that America is poor.

Candace Gibson: So considering that some of the people who go on to become President are so independently wealthy, we really do have to stop and look at a couple of historical examples and see exactly why people would choose to do that.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And there are a few examples of people who were wealthy before they entered into politics. And you question, "Why would they sacrifice a private sector salary?" And you look at the examples - Andrew Jackson, for one, Herbert Hoover, and LBJ - they got a lot of money before going into politics. And Hoover is actually an interesting case. He was orphaned at a young age and is a rags to riches story. He was able to make his way into Stanford and get an engineering degree. And the next few years, through the 1910s and 1920s, he actually got a lot of private wealth through mining engineering - which doesn't seem like it would get you a lot of money, but at the time that was the position to be in.

Candace Gibson: So it's funny you should mention people who make the active decision to go into politics, because on the exact opposite end of the spectrum you have people who are born into nobility. And unlike the U.S. President, monarchs stay on the throne until they die. And the U.S. President, well that's not the case. Either he serves one term for four years or two terms for eight years. And then it's over.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, puts him in kind of an awkward position afterwards.

Candace Gibson: It does. It does. It's so funny and it's almost like a mother watching her son get married and then she's not quite sure how much she can interfere and say, "I think you need to be doing this. I think you need to be styling your hair this way. I don't really like that suit you picked out." That's how I conceive of the ex-President. Of course, on a much more important scale! And George Washington really set the precedent for the ex-President. And I have to recommend a book for you guys. It's called Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House. And I think this book does such a fantastic job of explaining the strange role of the ex-President - or the post-President, really. And the idea that George Washington came up with was, "I'm done with politics. I'm going to go home. I'm going to be a gentleman farmer, and if anyone needs me in Washington, well - they know where to find me." And they did need him, and so he went back and with a lot of grace and dignity he served another military role. And then he went back home and retired. And I think that before Truman's time, on average, the ex-Presidents lived about 11 years after they finished the office. And today, it's more like 15 years. And again, that's an average. Someone like Jimmy Carter is still going strong - really, really strong.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And he's still making a difference. He's in the public spotlight at least and promoting future Presidents.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, exactly. And I think that the ex-Presidents, they make a careful decision about how they want to spend their retirement. And I think that today, even more than in the past, it's important for them to be seen. And they can fill a diplomatic post - or they can fill a political post. And there's something that's really powerful and creates a resonating feel of unity when you see a bunch of ex-Presidents all together. You get the sense that there's still a lot of confidence in that role and there's still a lot of satisfaction of, "Well, I played this out." And it's funny talking about taking pride in serving that position. My favorite ex-President ever, Thomas Jefferson - on his tombstone it doesn't even say that he was President of the United States. That wasn't something that he took as much pride in as founding the University of Virginia, which he did after his Presidency. Helping to draft the Declaration and the Statute of Religious Freedom in Virginia! Teddy Roosevelt also had a really interesting post-Presidency. He was so popular and so young that he could have easily won a second term, but he chose not to run again. And instead, he recommended Taft to the position and he did win, and he was President. But then Teddy came back and he was like, "I'm not so happy with the way that things are going." So he ran again. And he actually split the Republican Party ticket at that point between himself and Taft, and then Woodrow Wilson got in, which is probably a good thing because of the diplomacy he was able to extend during his administration. But you don't see a lot of Presidents doing that. Generally, when they're done with the office, they're done. And they don't really advise at that point. Like you said, they have a ceremonial presence more than anything else.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's nice. You mentioned that you see ex-Presidents together, and often that happens to be Presidents that are both Republican and Democrat. And it's kind of nice to see the bipartisan burying of the axe.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And again, with Thomas Jefferson, my favorite, he and one of his political allies turned enemy, John Adams - they were, oh my goodness - they were incommunicado for years. And then after they both finished the Presidency, I think there was a quiet understanding between them and they had this correspondence back and forth over the years. And then they ended up dying on the exact same day, July 4th, 1826. And I think John Adams said that his only consolation on his deathbed was knowing that his friend, Thomas Jefferson, lived. And, ha ha - he didn't. But the office also takes a physical toll on Presidents, too.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And if imagine, Nixon had some hard times there in the last months of his presidency. And I'm sure that took a toll on him. But also, if you look at Reagan, he wasn't haggard after office because of political reasons, but the country watched as his health degenerated. And he suffered from Alzheimer's and he started forgetting even the fact that he was President. And it's pretty sad.

Candace Gibson: It is. And even to flash back to someone like FDR and his health conditions, it's hard to see your country's leader incapacitated like that. But the fact that his mind was sharp enough to lead the country, I think, is a really powerful thing.

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Gibson: So if you want to learn more about Presidents past, present, and future, be sure to check out

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