The Obamas: Conspicuous Sacrifice vs. Conspicuous Consumption

A recurring theme of the Obama White House is "sacrifice." The president has repeatedly stressed the need for us to tighten our belts. He has informed us, "We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ..." During the campaign, his wife told us that we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done. Shortly after the election, the president said that "[e]verybody's going to have to give. Everybody's going to have to have some skin in the game." 

This emphasis on "sacrifice" is presented as a simple matter of justice. We are told that we live in a nation that comprises a small fraction of the earth's population, yet we consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources.

The Obamas do not expect us to sacrifice alone. They believe that they have established a long pattern of self-sacrifice. According to Michelle Obama, one of the Obamas' first major decisions after graduating from college was, "Do I go to Wall Street and make money, or do I work for the people?" As we all know Barack, decided to "work for the people." During the campaign, Michelle informed six women in the playroom of the Zanesville Ohio Day Nursery, "We left corporate America." She advised these working-class women to do the same: "Don't go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers." According to Michelle, these are "the careers we need." She discouraged them from going into "corporate law or hedge-fund management." She warned these women, however, that their salaries would respond negatively if they made that choice. 

After attaining the White House, the Obamas have continued to sacrifice, with a notable example being their trip to Denmark in order to secure the 2016 Olympics for Chicago. Michelle explained, "As much of a sacrifice as people say this is for me or Oprah or the president to come for these few days, so many of you in this room have been working for years to bring this bid home." The Obamas appear to be bearing up, however. They are tough. As Michelle told her Zanesville audience, "So I tell people, 'Don't cry for me.'" In spite of their apparently sincere belief that they are sacrificing "for the people," Michelle's behavior occasionally seems to belie this idea. This is most obvious in her thirst for fashion.

Michelle attended a luncheon for the homeless wearing a pair of $540 Lanvin sneakers. On a trip to Russia, she was seen sporting what was thought to be a $5,950 VBH alligator manila clutch. The White House protested that she was actually carrying the $875 VBH patent leather clutch. This is perhaps another example of self-sacrifice. She has ordered a pair of thigh-high leather boots from Robert Clergerie, a famous French designer. Had Governor Sarah Palin made any of these purchases, she would have been criticized on the front pages of the major newspapers. Their treatment of Michelle Obama is considerably kinder. She is seen as a fashion icon.

For a couple with a preference for $100-a-pound Wagyu beef, it is inconsistent to claim that "we can't eat as much as we want." Apparently the president's admonition that we can't "keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times" does not apply to him. If his senior adviser David Axelrod is to be believed, the president prefers a warm environment. Axelrod is reported by the New York Times as describing the temperature in the Oval Office as rather temperate: "He's from Hawaii," Axelrod said. "He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there." The president's years in Chicago apparently were not sufficient to acclimatize him to the cold.

The Obamas have every right to dress as they please. The have every right to spend their money as they choose. However, they cannot spend lavishly while contending that they are sacrificing for "the people." The majority of "the people" know about sacrifice. A Zogby poll reported that 70 percent of households are forgoing movies and restaurants. Are the Obamas? Perhaps the pièce de résistance was a statement by Michelle after a party for the "first dog," Bo: "We had a really sweet celebration -- [Bo] got a doghouse cake made out of veal stuff and he had his brother Cappy come over and we had party hats." Poor Bo. I am certain that he would have preferred Wagyu steak.

John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy (Algora Publishing).