In a measure of solidarity with those affected by the budget-slashing government sequestration, President Obama is giving up 5 percent of his salary for rest of the year, which is almost as admirable and sensible as a mansion-owner shutting off his marble fountains during a drought.
This is not to imply that the president shouldn't demonstrate some unity with those who've been furloughed or lost work because of the blind slashing the sequestration prompted. People like Jeff Maryak, profiled by BuzzFeed, who is considering re-enlisting to make ends meet after a 27 percent pay cut. People like those who've lost access to critical public services as government employees have been told to stay at home. Obama should certainly show that he understands how the cuts — which he signed into law — are hurting people across the country.
But a 5 percent pay cut is stupid. The New York Times reports that the amount was meant to "approximate the level of automatic spending cuts to non-defense federal agencies that took effect" at the beginning of March. (Obama's pay cut is retroactive to that date and runs through the end of the year, so he's forgoing 4.2 percent of his 2013.) For Obama, who makes a federally mandated $400,000 a year, he's losing $16,667 this year. For a worker earning minimum wage, Obama's pay cut is $1,500 more than they'll earn this year.
Unlike the cuts faced by others, Obama's dip will not affect his lifestyle. The president has a few other perks that an average worker doesn't. He has a house, for example. He doesn't pay for gas in his limousine fleet. He pays for personal expenses, but also has an expense account, as detailed in this great (if old) Slate explainer. Very, very few people earning minimum wage can match that.
Nor would this be a big dent if the president weren't actually president. Barack Obama, thanks mostly to sales of his various books, has a pretty decent bank account. Last year, CNNMoney estimated his net worth at between $2.8 and $11 million. In 2011, the last year for which data is available, he earned about $790,000, including his presidential salary. Even if CNNMoney's lower bound estimate is correct, losing 16 grand is a dip of about .6 percent in his net worth.
All of which makes his offer to sacrifice five percent of his salary a worse move than if he'd done nothing. If someone you know to be wealthy drops a quarter into a cup held by a homeless person, you're far more likely to consider the move cheap than generous.
Granted, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel forced Obama's hand a bit, by offering to take a similar cut yesterday afternoon. (Hagel's losing about ten grand.) But the real problem is that cutting the salaries of individual elected officials is almost always a silly gesture. There are 100 senators in Washington. If each cut his or her (but mostly his) salary by 10 percent for the entirety of 2013, do you know how much that would save the budget? $1.7 million — or .00005 percent of the federal government's 2012 budget of about $3.5 trillion. Add in the House, and you get up to .0002 percent. People love the idea — there's a tantalizing punitive aspect to forcing pay cuts on legislators — but it's all show.
What Obama's move does do is draw precisely the wrong sort of attention to cuts. The sequestration is having an affect across the country, but it's mostly hidden, falling on the backs of recipients of housing vouchers and food pantries and the long-term unemployed. Obama's move is forcing the press to talk about the issue again, but what the press is discussing isn't poor workers who are trying to make ends meet. Instead, they're discussing a wealthy man with exceptional benefits who is dropping quarters into tip cups.