President Barack Obama’s “birthday present” to his wife–an extended vacation in Hawaii while he returns to Washington–violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. It is, in part, a “gift” from taxpayers to the First Lady, since the Treasury is on the hook for the additional transportation and security costs incurred whenever the President and Mrs. Obama travel separately. The cost is roughly $100,000, which is what it cost to send Mrs. Obama to Hawaii by herself in 2010.
In South Africa, that country’s president, Jacob Zuma, is under scrutiny for spending some $20 million of public money on security upgrades to his personal residence, a traditional Zulu-style compound of rondavels and recreational buildings. President Obama’s effective use of public funds for his wife’s benefit is nowhere in the same league in cost terms, but the basic corrupt principle is the same: both feel entitled to use state security resources for their personal benefit.
Federal and state governments regularly indict ordinary people who use public funds for their personal benefit. Just last month, a Nebraska woman was indicted for, among other things, using public funds to buy herself birthday presents. The White House has wide discretion in allocating government resources for the travel of the President and the First Lady, but spending taxpayer money to enable Michelle Obama to enjoy a “birthday present” is highly inappropriate.
To those who think that the Obamas should not have to give up such romantic gestures for the sake of public service, the answer is simple: let them pay for such gifts themselves. President Obama ought to reimburse taxpayers for the full cost of the First Lady’s extended vacation. The federal government is not a kingdom or a personal fiefdom, and unless we wish our leaders to imitate the kleptocratic behavior of some Third World leaders, we ought to reject such behavior.