Ever since it won independence, the United States has cherished democracy and spurned the semblance of aristocracy and monarchy. However, the need for a central executive leader -- the president -- has made it difficult to avoid giving that person preferential treatment. After all, it's a big job. Should presidents have to waste time doing their own laundry and buying plane tickets when they're signing legislation and dispatching troops?
As time's gone on, the perks of the job have become more numerous. Some of these perks have sparked controversy, such as free campaign resources at the president's disposal. But in general, the American people seem to accept this special treatment. It helps that presidents only get to be spoiled for eight years at most -- they aren't royalty from the cradle to the grave (though we will talk about post-presidential perks later). The VIP treatment also seems fitting considering the difficult road to the White House. Presidential candidates spend years and millions upon millions of dollars campaigning. Once they win, these perks eliminate the hassles and distractions from their all-important job.
But perks aren't just about making the president's life easier; instead, many are for security or just practical reasons. And having one of the highest-pressure jobs in the world probably dulls the joys of such perks. Still, it's nice to imagine what life would be like with all these extras.
The White House is one of the most recognizable symbols of presidential prestige and power. Originally built in 1800, the illustrious residence has gone through many transformations. Today, it has 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms [source: White House]. In addition to the West Wing, which contains administrative offices, the mansion also has a personal movie-screening room and even a bowling alley. The 18 acres of grounds include a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, jogging track and putting green.
Despite the cushy facilities, most people are even more impressed with the scope of services the White House provides. In addition to cleaning, laundry and errands of all kinds, various staff members are always at the beck and call of the president and first family for whatever they need. Aside from administrative assistants who tend to business needs, the White House staff includes groundskeepers, florists, valets and butlers, a pastry chef and 24-hour cooking staff.
Added up, all these domestic perks amount to a pretty penny. The flowers alone, which adorn every room as well as dot the grounds, cost an estimated $252,000 per year [source: Kessler]. Annually, upkeep for the White House costs approximately $4 million [source: Channel One].
In addition to the general staff that comes with the grounds, the president also has personal attendants to see to any need that may arise -- including medical issues. Read on to learn about the commander in chief's personal staff.
The head of the household staff and operations at the White House is known as the chief usher. He or she is responsible for supervising residence staff in three major areas, coordinating both the official, public life of the president as well as the private life of the first family.
Under the chief usher, staff includes the executive chef. Heading up three kitchens and a staff of four sous-chefs, the executive chef creates menus for everything from state dinners to the White House's daily meals. The current executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, is the first woman selected for the post and has held the position since 2005. The White House executive pastry chef plans separately for all desserts and pastries to be served at those formal functions and informal meals.
The physician to the president is the director of the White House medical unit, which is a part of the White House military office, and treats the vice president, family members and White House staff and visitors. He or she oversees a staff of five military physicians, five nurses, five physician assistants, three medics, three administrators and an IT Manager.
The social secretary plans, coordinates and executes all official social events, both political and non-political. Heading up the East Wing's Social Office, on projects ranging in scale from simple teas to dinners for 200 guests, the social secretary works with the chief usher to coordinate domestic staff, and with the chief of protocol on state visits and dinners. Our current social secretary, Jeremy Bernard, is the first man appointed to the role.
The chief calligrapher designs and executes all social and official documents, in the East Wing's Graphics & Calligraphy Office, working on projects such as invitations, greetings from the president, proclamations, military commissions, service awards and place cards. The chief floral designer designs and arranges of all floral decorations for the first family, both for private entertaining and for state functions. With a staff of four assistant designers, the chief florist works with the first lady, chief usher, and social secretary to plan arrangements and decorations for official and private rooms, as well as all holidays.
The White House Complex covers a lot of ground, and the South Lawn sports some impressive features of its own.
The tennis court which graces the lawn got a makeover shortly after President Obama took office. Now it serves as a multi-purpose space, allowing for both tennis and full-court basketball games. The redesigned court has hosted events for basketball players of all skill levels, as well as activities for the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign, which encourages kids to stay active and take positive steps towards healthy living.
If you thought the White House grounds only housed humans, you haven't heard about the beehive. That's right, the South Lawn is home to a dedicated beehive to cultivate honey for use in the White House kitchens. The hive is a relatively new addition to the lawn -- it was installed in 2009. The beehive is actually not a particularly pricey endeavor, and those bees earn their keep by pollinating another feature of the South Lawn -- the kitchen garden.
Like the beehive, the garden was established in 2009, and it is the first garden of its kind on the White House grounds since World War II. Many of the seeds that started the garden came from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at Monticello. The produce that comes from the garden is used in the White House kitchen to prepare both small meals and state dinners, and some of it is donated to facilities that provide food for the needy.
While gardening, beekeeping and basketball may not rack up mammoth price tags on their own, the areas of the South Lawn used for these endeavors all had to be renovated and receive ongoing maintenance. After all, even casual presidential luxuries need staff and upkeep.
Blair House is the official state guest house for the President of the United States. A complex of four connected townhouses -- including the original House, built in 1824 and acquired by the U.S. in 1942 -- Blair House is actually larger than the White House, at more than 70,000 square feet (21,336 square meters). Its 119 rooms include more than 20 bedrooms for guests and staff, 35 bathrooms, four dining rooms, a gym, a flower shop and a hair salon.
Several presidents-elect and their families have spent their last few nights before inauguration in Blair House. Even more interestingly, when foreign leaders stay at Blair House, the house flies their flag -- which means that the house itself becomes foreign soil.
No wonder it's managed by the Office of the Chief of Protocol, which operates out of the State department and also handles things like consulates, ambassadors and state arrival ceremonies. The chief of protocol works together with the social secretary, executive chefs, and chief usher to deal with everything from visit details to formal and informal dinners, transportation, customs and etiquette, and anything else to help ensure a smooth and mutually beneficial visit.
Since the late '30s, the U.S. government has commissioned vehicles for presidential use, and those vehicles require advanced communications equipment, convenience features, armor plating and defense countermeasures. American cars are traditionally chosen for the role; the current limousine style used is worth about $300,000, and is also called Cadillac One, or "The Beast."
While a lot of the security features are classified, we know the armor on Cadillac One is at least 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) thick, the doors weigh as much as a Boeing 757 door, and the tires function even when punctured. The car has its own oxygen supply and firefighting system in the trunk -- as well as a blood bank of the president's type. Outside, there is infrared video for driving in bad conditions, and the seven-seater can also shoot tear-gas and smoke grenades if necessary.
Finally, a fleet of two black armored busses intended for dignitaries as well as the president are referred to as Ground Force One, and cost a little more than $1 million each.
As of 2003, the United States Secret Service is a law enforcement agency under Homeland Security. Formerly, as with a lot of services folded in Homeland Security, it was a Treasury department. The Secret Service is responsible for preventing counterfeit, theft and major fraud, but more famously, it protects U.S. leaders and their families, as well as visiting heads of state and executive candidates.
The United States' first true domestic intelligence and counterintelligence agency, the Secret Service eventually saw many of its responsibilities handed off to the FBI, ATF, ICE and IRS. It gained its protective authority in 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley. While former presidents and vice-presidents once earned the protection of the Secret Service for life, 1997 legislation limited that service period to 10 years, moving forward.
The Secret Service Uniformed Division (UD) was established in 1922 as the White House Police Force before being integrated into the Secret Service in 1930. In 2010, the UD numbered more than 1300, providing security for the White House complex, the vice-president's residence, the Treasury and diplomats in the District of Columbia. They also provide officers for countersniper support, the K-9 and explosives unit and the emergency response team.
The Presidential Advance Team -- known as the most complex, expensive and thorough advance unit in the world -- includes logistics and security for the president's motorcade, as well as employing Secret Service against the 500 death threats the president receives each month, on average.
Protecting the president is no small affair and takes a great deal of manpower. For example, during President Bush's administration in 2003, a trip to London required 904 staffers from Defense, 600 from the armed services, 250 Secret Service officers, 205 White House staff, 103 CIA staff, 44 staff from the State Department, 30 more from within the Cabinet, 18 Senior Advance Office staff, 16 Congressmen and 12 sniffer dogs.
Despite the conveniences and luxuries of the White House, it's still as much an office as it is a home. When presidents need more relaxation, they visit secluded Camp David. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was looking for a presidential home-away-from-home, so he built one for about $25,000 [source: Kruse]. Camp David sits atop Catoctin Mountain outside Thurmont, Md. It's a convenient 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Washington, D.C., which makes for a quick getaway should the president need a break from the bustling city. And in the summertime, Camp David is also much cooler than the district.
FDR used the retreat home frequently before his death and originally named it Shangri-la -- a reference to the Tibetan utopia in the novel "Lost Horizon." Eisenhower later renovated it and renamed it Camp David in honor of his grandson. Most notably, President Carter used it as a site for the peace talks between the Egyptian president and Israeli prime minister in 1978.
Today, Camp David is closed to the public and extremely secure. After several renovations, the site now features 11 residence cabins and an office cabin, a swimming pool, skeet-shooting range and bowling alley. Presidents travel there via helicopter, which leads us to our next perk.
When presidents travel, they do it in style. Although any plane carrying the president is referred to as "Air Force One," most people use the name to refer to the two Boeing 747-200B jets built specifically for the president.
The middle level of these planes carries up to 70 passengers, as well as a 26-person crew. There's ample room in the staff, media and security areas in the back half of the plane, but the president has a personal suite under the cockpit with an office, bathroom, bedroom and workout room. The upper level of the plane is for the telecommunications center, while the bottom level is for cargo. C141 Starlifter cargo planes carry the motorcade -- including armored limos -- to wherever the president is headed.
The Air Force One perk is so cool that it's even inspired an action movie of the same name. Though many people consider Air Force One the ultimate presidential luxury, it's tough to determine the cost of such a convenience.
When traveling short distances, such as to Camp David or even to Andrews Air Force Base, the president uses a helicopter -- Marine One. The president's helicopter fleet currently includes Sikorsky VH-3D Sea Kings and VH-60N Black Hawks. Plans for new Marine One helicopters caused controversy when the Pentagon announced in 2008 that they'd cost $400 million each [source: Baker].
The job of president comes with two things you can't put a price on: power and influence. However, it's still a salaried position. After perusing through some of these other perks, you might be wondering how much of a salary the president gets.
In 2001, after 30 years without an increase, Congress raised the presidential salary from $200,000 to $400,000. But that isn't all. The president also gets a cool $100,000 for travel expenses. In addition, there's $19,000 allotted for official entertaining. Although the salary is taxable, these other benefits aren't. Plus, the White House is also paid for [source: The History Channel].
Interestingly, many presidents actually take a pay cut when they're inaugurated. Compared to successful executives in the corporate world, the commander in chief doesn't make all that much. Still, the salary is nothing to sneeze at, and it's an attractive perk for most of us. And that's not all: After the president leaves office, there are other retirement perks to look forward to -- including a pension.
What happens to a president after his or her term expires or a new president is voted into office? If you wonder about the difficulty of transitioning from one of the most powerful positions into the ranks of ex-presidents (and a life of relative obscurity), don't feel too badly for ex-presidents -- they get their own special retirement perks.
For starters, ex-presidents receive a hefty annual pension for their golden years. Before 1958, the government expected them to pursue other ventures and didn't support them at all. As of March 2008, they received $191,300 per year [source: Smith]. In addition to that sum, they get a paid staff and office space, in addition to phone services and funds for office supplies.
Ex-presidents even receive compensation for the costs of relocating offices. Although they may not get the sweet rides on Air Force One anymore, they do get an allowance for travel expenses. They also enjoy a great medical perk: receiving medical treatment at military hospitals. To top it all off, ex-presidents can relax safely and soundly thanks to continued personal security. Presidents who entered office prior to 1997 enjoy this security for the rest of their lives, but later presidents only get this service for 10 years.
The last perk a president gets is a pretty special one. In a ceremonial as well as practical gesture (to spare the president's family funeral costs), every ex-president gets a state funeral with all the pomp and circumstance befitting the former chief executive.
Let's shed some light on how and why political donations can be so tricky. Learn all about dark money at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
- "Air Force One (aircraft)." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
- "Camp David." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
- Baker, Peter. "Cost Nearly Doubles For Marine One Fleet." Washington Post. March 17, 2008. (May 4, 2009) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/16/AR2008031602936.html?hpid=topnews
- Baker, Peter. "Obama Confronts a Choice on Copters." New York Times. Feb. 15, 2009. (May 4, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/us/politics/16chopper.html?_r=1&ref=politics
- ChannelOne. "Presidential Perks." ChannelOne. Updated Aug. 5, 2008. (May 4, 2009) http://www.channelone.com/news/presidential_perks/
- Djang, Jason. "A Look Behind the Scenes of Presidential Advance". The White House Blog, Jan 2019. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/01/21/a-look-behind-scenes-presidential-advance
- The History Channel. "The Bush Administration." The History Channel, 2009. (May 4, 2009) http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=227235
- Hollington, Kris. "All The President's Men: The unimaginable lengths needed to keep George Bush alive". The Daily Mail, Jul 2008. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1031210/All-The-Presidents-Men-The-unimaginable-lengths-needed-George-Bush-alive-.html
- Kessler, Ronald. "Inside the White House." Simon and Schuster, 1996. (May 4, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=lJz-yIZNE2sC
- Kruse, Justin. "Camp David Offers Presidents Rest, Retreat." WTAE-TV. September 17, 2008. (May 4, 2009) http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/politics/17501118/detail.html
- Lute, Jane Holl. "The Department of Homeland Security's Commitment to Veterans". The White House Blog, Nov 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/11/10/department-homeland-securitys-commitment-veterans
- National Park Service. "Camp David (Catoctin Mountain Park)." National Park Service. Last updated Jan. 22, 2004. (May 4, 2009) http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/Presidents/site26.htm
- Schieffer, Bob. "Presidential Perks." CBS News. March 7, 2004. (May 4, 2009) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/03/08/opinion/schieffer/main604603.shtml
- Smith, Stephanie. "CRS Report for Congress: Former Presidents: Federal Pension and Retirement Benefits." Congressional Research Service; the Library of Congress. March 18, 2008. (May 4, 2009) http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/98-249.pdf
- Third Base Politics. "Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Advance Team". Third Base Politics Blog, Feb 2010. http://thirdbasepolitics.blogspot.com/2010/02/behind-scenes-of-presidential-advance.html