A lot of emailers have been taking a look at the Obamas’ tax returns from 2000 to 2006, just released by the campaign. Several are pointing out the couple’s charitable contributions prior to Barack Obama’s big book-related payday — in 2002, the Obamas contributed $1,050 from an adjusted gross income of $259,394, and in 2001 they gave $1,470 from an adjusted gross income of $272,759. They contributed far more in Obama’s big earning year, 2005, when they gave $77,315 on an adjusted gross income of $1,655,106.
Something else that strikes me about the returns is their relation to Michelle Obama’s tales of her and her husband’s struggle. When I saw Mrs. Obama at an appearance in Zanesville, Ohio last month, she was telling a group of low-income women — the median household income in the county in which Zanesville is located was $37,192 in 2004, well below the state and national medians — about how hard it can be to keep things together. Her talk often touched on money. “I know we’re spending — I added it up for the first time — we spend between the two kids, on extracurriculars outside the classroom, we’re spending about $10,000 a year on piano and dance and sports supplements and so on and so forth,” she told the women of her own household expenses. “And summer programs. That’s the other huge cost. Barack is saying, ‘Whyyyyyy are we spending that?’ And I’m saying, ‘Do you know what summer camp costs?’”
The women nodded in agreement, although the Obamas were spending what amounted to nearly a third of a Zanesville resident’s annual income on piano and dance lessons. Nevertheless, Michelle Obama portrayed herself and her husband as going through a lot of the same struggles as the women and their families. She conceded that she was doing fine financially, but only after Barack Obama hit it big with his books. And then there was this, from my story of that day:
As she has many times in the past, Mrs. Obama complains about the lasting burden of student loans dating from her days at Princeton and Harvard Law School. She talks about people who end up taking years and years, until middle age, to pay off their debts. “The salaries don’t keep up with the cost of paying off the debt, so you’re in your 40s, still paying off your debt at a time when you have to save for your kids,” she says.
“Barack and I were in that position,” she continues. “The only reason we’re not in that position is that Barack wrote two best-selling books… It was like Jack and his magic beans. But up until a few years ago, we were struggling to figure out how we would save for our kids.” A former attorney with the white-shoe Chicago firm of Sidley & Austin, Obama explains that she and her husband made the choice to give up lucrative jobs in favor of community service. “We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” she tells the women. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.” Faced with that reality, she adds, “many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management.”
And now we have the tax returns from some of those struggling years. We all know that the Obamas did well in 2005 and 2006, when Barack Obama’s books were selling and the University of Chicago gave Michelle Obama an unusually large raise, from $121,910 in 2004 to 316,962 in 2005. In those years, according to the tax returns, the Obamas’ adjusted gross income was $983,826 in 2006 and $1,655,106 in 2005.
But now we see that the Obamas managed to scrape by in the years before that, as well. The returns show them with an adjusted gross income of $207,647 in 2004, the year Barack Obama spent running for the Senate. Their adjusted gross income was $238,327 in 2003. It was $259,394 in 2002; $272,759 in 2001; and $240,505 in 2000.
Now, there’s no doubt that with their Ivy League pedigree, both Michelle and Barack Obama could have made more in corporate law or hedge-fund management. But I don’t think Michelle Obama’s portrayal of herself as making sacrifices to serve the community will resonate with most voters. To me, that kind of talk seems completely in line with Barack Obama’s inordinate appeal to the Whole Foods/NPR constituency. He’ll need a lot more than that, plus the black vote, to get elected.
(Just a footnote for you readers who might be coming from places like DailyKos or the Huffington Post: Yes, I did stories back in the 2000 campaign about George W. Bush’s rather well-connected path to riches. You can look it up.)