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The Underpaid Robert Gibbs and Washington's Sense of Entitlement

3 years ago
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With the capital awash in star-spangled sentiment this week, it seems appropriate to recall a patriotic parable so dangerous that it undermines the governing ethos of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.
Leaving office in 1953, as biographer David McCullough writes, Harry Truman "traveled home from Washington unprotected by Secret Service agents ... He had come home without salary or pension. He had no income or support from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month ... Truman had been forced to take out a loan at the National Bank in Washington in his last weeks as president to tide him over."
The Myth of Cincinnatus -- the Roman general who saved the Republic and then humbly returned to his farm -- is as outmoded in 21st century Washington as remembering that slavery and Prohibition were once in the Constitution. Instead, these days the governing philosophy of governing is that doing good by selflessly working in the White House entitles you to do well for the rest of your life.
Barack Obama bid a grateful farewell to Robert Gibbs Wednesday by stressing to The New York Times that his press secretary "had a six-year stretch now where basically he's been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay." As a senior White House aide, Gibbs modestly earned $172,200 last year. That income alone -- leaving out any earnings by his wife -- would put Gibbs in the upper 8 percent of all American families, according to 2009 Census figures.
Yes, Washington and its close-in suburbs are expensive places to live. But it is a safe guess that most print reporters who pepper Gibbs with questions at his daily briefings make less than $172,000 a year -- and they somehow manage to live in Washington as well. Salaries for federal judges (all of whom boast educational pedigrees that outstrip Gibbs' undergraduate degree from North Carolina State) start at $174,000 and waft skyward to $223,000 for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Obama's sympathetic comments about Gibbs' financial sacrifice illustrate that populism remains an abstraction for the president, despite the persistence of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In the world of Obama (or Clinton or either Bush), it is par for the course that William Daley, the new White House chief of staff, served as Midwest chairman for JP Morgan Chase between his stints in government. Or that Rahm Emanuel made $16 million as an investment banker during the three years between his departure from the Clinton White House and his 2002 election to the House.
If Gibbs were immediately heading to a comparably paid job in the president's 2012 re-election campaign, only a churl would complain about his need for some time off -- as Obama put it -- "to step back, reflect and retool." But at his press briefing Wednesday, Gibbs announced without a flicker of embarrassment, "I will have an opportunity I hope to give some speeches." The Washington Post reported that Gibbs has hired Washington lawyer Robert Barnett to negotiate these speeches and other potentially lucrative engagements after leaving the White House. While the departing White House press secretary ruled out a book "in the near future" and doubted that he would ever work for a political candidate not named Obama, Gibbs did not offer any Sherman-esque denials about taking on corporate work.
To be fair, Gibbs is a portrait in Gandhian self-denial compared to many who have glided from a presidential limousine to a personal one. Little more than a year after he left the Reagan White House, lobbyist Michael Deaver posed for an infamous 1986 Time magazine cover showing him talking on an early car phone from the back seat of a limo as the headline ominously asked: "Who's This Man Calling? Influence Peddling in Washington." While Deaver was an imagemaker, not an attorney, he was following the buck-raking tradition of lawyer-fixers like Tommy Corcoran (FDR) and Clark Clifford (Truman), who learned government from the inside and then greased the levers of power for grateful corporate clients.
Unlike lobbying (on which Obama deserves credit for taking a hard line), Gibbs will be hurting no one if in three months, say, he gets paid $30,000 for telling some harmless anecdotes about the president and the press corps to the annual convention of the Cat Food Producers of America. But there remains something slightly unseemly about cashing in like this while the president who has made your career is still in the Oval Office. The problem is that as long as Gibbs, Obama and the entire political-insider culture of Washington believe that working in the White House for $172,000 is a form of martyrdom, then the only restraint after leaving government will be the fine print in the ethics laws.
There was an era (personified by the likes of Truman and Sam Rayburn in the 1950s) when a high-level career in public service and an upper-middle-class income seemed reward enough. These bygone values endure among many in the military and the federal judiciary -- not to mention among the underpaid denizens of the White House briefing room. But too often power players in Washington believe that if they see the president every day, appear on television and have a permanent seat on Air Force One, they are entitled to get rich as soon as they leave government.
When it comes to personal money, there is a sense in Washington that what happens within the Beltway stays within the Beltway. But voters are not dumb, even if more than 90 percent of them survive on less than $172,000 a year. What happens in government is not the only trigger for populist outrage. For it is equally easy to become enraged by career arcs after government.

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Robert Wayne

This Gibbs clown was just another left wing mouthpiece for Ocrappo. I feel soooooooo sorry for him. He 'only' made $172,200 last year for basically making excuses for the communist crook now residing in the White House. Boo hoo hoo. The nerve of these Washington crooks does amaze me though. And they wonder why they're despised and untrusted???

January 14 2011 at 12:18 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
Janet

Wouldn't it be nice, if you needed a little extra cash, to be able to go out and speak in front of a room full of people and come home with a cool 30K? Mr. Gibbs seems like a nice enough man, not too bright, not too effectual... from watching his press conferences I can't imagine listening to him for any length of time, and paying for the privilege. I'm sure he'll be "writing" a book as soon as he leaves his job, and that supporters will "buy" it to pad his income... Public servant?? What does that mean anymore?

January 13 2011 at 8:49 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
HELLO ANGLENS

After 15 years of working and going to college on again off again to earn a Bachelors Degree, then 18 years of being a long term care social worker and doing 7/24's and working a lot of overtime on salary, I bearly made $25,000 when I was forced to quit due to health issues, and, this was a hands-on care job with hours of behind the scenes work to help residents and their families (with no retirement or annuity.) So, why does it seem that those persons in America who do the most work helping people get paid the least and that those who help promote themselves just get richer? What's wrong with this big picture?

January 12 2011 at 11:26 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
ltobleck

What ever happened to th eThrill and glory of working for the public? It used to be that you did not make as much as a private company employee, but th ebenkfits were better as was the pension. Now these same government employees make twice as much as a private employee, can't be fired, have golden pensions, golden health care while we the people have to pay for this. Greece/Europe here we come.

January 12 2011 at 6:24 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ltobleck's comment
lobogal49

I am a 31 year Federal employee. I am also a third generation Fed. I had the choice to stay with the retirement plan I originally signed up for in 1979 or switch to the "new retirement plan" the government planned to switch in the mid-80s. I made the choice to stay with my original retirement plan. I am not within five years of retiring and my pay will be frozen for two years and maybe three years. They may also change us from a high 3-years to a high 5-years. How do you think all that is going to affect my retirement income? I have worked hard in my service to our Veterans and I feel like the government no longer values federal service. In good times, private employees get big bonuses, but in bad times, the private want the heads of federal employees. I, too, am a taxpayer and want to see the government spend its funds wisely. When the real cuts come, who will scream the loudest when they don't get the SS check on time or there is another Gulf oil spill. Can't have it both ways.

January 13 2011 at 12:02 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
acpward69

I find it hard to feel sorry for him, I raised a family during the 70"s on far less and remember if we were lucky to have $5 left by the next payday and that with owing the store a couple hundred bucks. There was no high living either.

I figure in Washington i could eat for free the entire time, there had to be plenty of food at the White House, 24/7.

Lets stop living too high and get back to basics.

January 10 2011 at 10:03 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
nexus3695

Mr Gibbs understands that fame is a fleeting thing.While he has it he wants to make enough money to ensure his future much in the same way Sarah Palin is doing.
Make no mistake,my political opinions are far more in line with Gov Palin than Mr.Gibbs,so please don't assume that my remarks are politically motivated.
But while we are on the subject,it seems that the President is distancing himself from the more radically left leaning staffers he came to power with and is going to more centrist people and proven Clinton people from the past.Having said that I'm sure that the President either encouraged Mr Gibbs to go or at least did not encourage him to stay.

January 09 2011 at 9:28 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
CalSailor

Yes, in the last two years, Gibbs made a higher salary than most Americans. My question, however, is how about the previous four years? The quote was that Gibbs has been going non stop for the last 6 years. How much did he make during that time? Especially the first 4 years?

Pr Chris

January 09 2011 at 7:46 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
dmnlt1

Everyone in Washington should be working for, "rather modest pay"!

January 09 2011 at 3:31 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
j3fmly

AOL says, No attacks on other posters and public officials. But they dont seem to have any problem doing it.

January 09 2011 at 8:12 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
King Dave

Political office should not be for someone who wants to get rich from it, so look at Obama he made 5+ million the first year in office for writing a book. instead he should be concentrating on his job.he and Michelle are milking all they can out of it. and I still laugh at Obama getting the Nobel prize, it will be in a Chicago pawn shop pretty soon i bet.

January 09 2011 at 5:35 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

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