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How much is Obama worth?

There is a certain prestige attached to being president of the United States. No doubt about it. But in capitalist society a person’s “worth” is measured in money. From this point of view, Obama – like quite a few of the presidents who preceded him – is small fry.

Estimates based on Obama’s 2009 tax return show his net worth as $10,100,000 and his disposable annual income as $3,200,000. He has a large but hardly palatial house, purchased in 2005 for $1,650,000, in Hyde Park, a gentrified section of Chicago’s South Side near the university.

A long way from the top

This may seem big money to your average Joe. But consider: the United States has 403 billionaires, each of them worth at least 100 times as much as Obama. Five have fortunes in excess of 20 billion dollars – that is, at least 2,000 times the wealth of the president.

Obama is on the way up, to be sure, but he is still a long, long way from the top of the capitalist pecking order. Probably, like Bill Clinton, he will make a hundred million or so after leaving office on the after-dinner speech circuit. But even then he will be a long way from the top.    

There are several dozen members of Congress wealthier than Obama. (The richest is Congressman Darrell Issa, Republican—California, at $251 million.) Some of the members of Obama’s administration are also worth more than him.

Why does all this matter?

Knowing what we do of the capitalist ethos, it must surely be one of the factors that shape the relationship between Obama and the real masters of the country. It helps explain why Obama, like many of his predecessors, behaves as their servant and feels unable to stand up to them as an equal. In Obama’s case, of course, an additional factor is at work – the deeply ingrained sense of vulnerability that comes of being a “black” man in a society that remains racist despite the temporary anomaly of a “black” family in the White House.

A helping hand?

Nevertheless, ten million dollars is much more than the vast majority of Americans – let alone of the world population -- can ever expect to possess. It is revealing to examine how Obama got that far.

Let’s focus on the year 2006, when Obama was already an up-and-coming senator but had yet to declare his bid for the presidency. According to their tax return, the income of the Obama family that year was almost a million dollars ($991,296 to be exact). Less than a sixth of that ($157,082) came from Barack’s official salary as a senator. Nearly a third ($324,818) was paid to Michelle by two corporations in which she occupied senior management positions. The remainder – just over half ($509,396) – came from various other sources, of which the most important was royalties on Barack’s two books (published in 2005 and 2006, respectively).

Now let’s take a closer look at Michelle’s contribution to the family income. She received a salary of $273,618 as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, plus $51,200 as a paid member of the board of directors of TreeHouse Foods.

Why was she appointed to these positions? It is quite possible that these two companies wanted to benefit from her skills as a lawyer. But it is also quite possible that the bosses of these companies appointed her to reward Barack for services rendered in the Senate and/or ensure his future goodwill – to influence his stance on health reform, for instance.

The capitalists who sponsor a rising politician provide most of the money he needs to campaign for office and promote his image through the media. But often they also lend him a helping hand with his personal finances. They may do this by various methods, not all of them strictly legal. For example, the Clintons benefited from an inside tip to buy certain stock; later their enemies found out and used it against them.

Evidently, the helpful sponsor in these cases wants his client to feel beholden to him not only for the success of his political career but also for the well-being and security of his family. For the corruption of a human being is more than a businesslike exchange of favors: it is a profound psychological, emotional, and intellectual process. And letting your protégé keep at least a small share of the loot for himself gives you an additional guarantee – should one be needed – of his loyalty to the system of capitalist exploitation as well as to you personally.        

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