Aiming to deliver a knockout blow to Donald Trump’s staggering presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton turned to popular first lady Michelle Obama to rally voters in North Carolina.
Trump denounced both Hillary and Bill Clinton as creatures of a corrupt political system, who would use another pass at the Oval Office to enrich themselves at the expense of American families. He faces a sizable fundraising deficit that could cripple his last-ditch electoral efforts.
Mrs. Obama, one of Clinton’s most effective surrogates, passionately touted Clinton’s experience and denounced Trump as too divisive and thin-skinned for the White House.
“We want someone who is a unifying force in this country, someone who sees our differences not as a threat but as a blessing,” Mrs. Obama said as she addressed an enthusiastic, 11,000-person crowd in Winston-Salem, one of Clinton’s biggest gatherings of her campaign. Trump often points out that his crowds are generally larger than his rival’s.
Mrs. Obama also accused Trump’s campaign of trying to depress voter turnout and panned his provocative assertion that the results of the Nov. 8 contest may be rigged.
“Just for the record, in this country, the United States of America, the voters decide elections,” the first lady said. “They’ve always decided.”
With a lead in polling for weeks, Clinton’s campaign is concerned that her advantage could prompt some of her backers to stay home on Election Day or cast protest votes for a third-party candidate. Nearly all of her recent events have been in states where early voting is already underway, aimed at using the rallies to prompt supporters to bank their votes now.
Trump seized on newly public emails in which longtime Bill Clinton aide Doug Band describes overlapping relationships of the Clintons’ global philanthropy and the family’s private enrichment. The emails were among thousands stolen from the private account of a top Clinton aide, part of a hacking the Democratic campaign has blamed on the Russians.
“Mr. Band called the arrangement ‘unorthodox.’ The rest of us call it outright corrupt,” Trump declared during a rally in Springfield, Ohio. “If the Clintons were willing to play this fast and loose with their enterprise when they weren’t in the White House, just imagine what they’ll do in the Oval Office.”
Clinton entered the final stretch of the race with a resounding cash advantage over Trump: As of last week, her campaign and Democratic partners had $153 million in the bank, more than double what Trump’s side had available.
New campaign finance reports also show Trump seems to have cut off his personal contributions. While he had routinely given about $2 million a month, as of Wednesday, he’d covered $33,000 in October campaign costs, giving nothing more — and putting him $44 million short of the $100 million overall he has repeatedly vowed to give.
Meanwhile, Trump running mate Mike Pence’s plane skidded off a rainy runway at New York’s LaGuardia Airport Thursday night, forcing a partial shutdown of one of the nation’s busiest airports. No one was injured and the incident was under investigation.
Pace reported from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. AP writers Lisa Lerer, Julie Bykowicz, Kathleen Hennessey and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
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When Hillary Clinton secured her place in the history as the first woman to win a major-party nomination for president, Democratic politicians around Washington marked the historic moment with barrage of statements, formal endorsements and public cheers.
One political figure, however, was notably silent: Michelle Obama.
The first lady let her husband speak for her during that moment in June, choosing instead to wait weeks to lend her voice to Clinton’s cause at the Democratic National Convention in what would become one of the most memorable moments in the campaign. It was the sort of careful choice that illustrated the gulf of differences between the current and former first ladies, women who have chartered very different paths through public life and are now locked in marriage of mutual interest.
When they campaign together for the first time Thursday, the event in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, will bring together one of the least traditional first ladies in modern history with one who has fully embraced tradition.
Clinton dove into policy, undertook a massive project and failed under a harsh spotlight. Mrs. Obama largely steered clear and enjoyed quieter, modest success. Both Ivy League-trained lawyers with their own careers, Clinton bridled under the stereotypes associated with the office, Mrs. Obama declared herself “mom-in-chief” (and let it be known she prefers the Mrs. title before her last name).
And when her time in the White House was ending, Clinton began plotting her return to Washington. Mrs. Obama hasn’t hid her readiness to leave.
Asked if Mrs. Obama would ever consider running for president herself, White House officials who rarely speak for the first lady don’t hesitate.
“No,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said flatly.
That’s crushing news to the Democrats who have relished Mrs. Obama’s speeches in support of Clinton as high-points of the campaign cycle. Mrs. Obama’s passionate response to Trump’s vulgar comments about women has brought an emotional resonance to Clinton’s bid that the candidate, who rarely gets personal on the stump, doesn’t often deliver.
Mrs. Obama’s appearances have become a key part of Clinton’s effort to fire up women, particularly black women for whom she’s a model and a source of pride. (Clinton even quotes Mrs. Obama’s DNC speech on the stump: “When they go low, we go high.”) Mrs. Obama, meanwhile, has her own reasons for stumping for Clinton and campaigning against Republican Donald Trump.
“I think Mrs. Obama really wants to make sure her husband’s legacy is maintained and Mrs. Clinton is the way to get there,” said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who has written about first ladies and women in politics.
The partnership has on one level made for a striking political odd couple.
As first lady, Mrs. Obama has largely dodged controversial issues. She’s stayed focused on her projects involving healthy eating, exercise, support for military families and education for girls — and not publicly expressed opinions on thornier subjects. She’s mastered the art of advocacy through popular culture, while, in recent years, all-but ignoring the possibility of policymaking through legislation. She’s cultivated a brand built on style, glamour and fashion.
It’s a tenure that bears little resemblance to her Democratic predecessor in the East Wing. Clinton came in promising, along with her husband, a new kind of partnership in charge at the White House. Hillary Clinton was a veteran of the feminist movement and ready to expand the office of first lady to suit her experience and passion for policy. She had an office in the West Wing, took over the health care overhaul effort and ultimately became a target of investigations and criticism alongside her husband.
It was a history Mrs. Obama and her aides sought to avoid. Asked to cite role models, Obama has named Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy. The Clintons and Obamas, of course, have a fraught history, one that includes both spouses. While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled in 2008, Michelle Obama raised questions about her husband’s opponent, framing the choice between the two as “about character.”
Since then the women have publicly buried the hatchet. They’ve appeared at countless events together and heaped praised on each other’s work, although there’s little sign they’ve spent time one-on-one.
Comparing how first ladies use the office is especially tricky, historians note. Because the office comes with no set of constitutional duties, it is also a reflection of an individual’s style, personality, politics and times.
The differences between Clinton and Mrs. Obama’s tenures speak in some ways to the differences in their generations — Clinton representing the first wave of baby boomers eager to push boundaries, while Obama benefited from lessons learned, noted Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies Library.
“Beneath the surface they both brought a sense of rigor and structure and focus,” he said. “They were very objective oriented.”
Those objectives were clearly different, he said.
“I think Michelle Obama may end up being perhaps one of the most influential first ladies when it comes to influence on the America public, whereas Hillary has been one of the most important in terms of achievement in terms of policy.”
Hillary Clinton was always expected to get a late-campaign enthusiasm boost from the White House. The surprise is that it’s not coming from the president.
On a star-studded team of campaign surrogates — including President Barack Obama — the most valuable player of 2016 is undoubtedly first lady Michelle Obama.
During a divisive political year, the hugely popular first lady has wowed voters with her powerful rhetoric. And she can be the emotional center to a campaign whose candidate is not known for projecting warmth.
Last week, in a searing indictment of Republican nominee Donald Trump that was broadcast live by cable news networks, Michelle Obama said his recorded boasts about making unwanted sexual advances toward women had “shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
With that, the first lady spoke in terms that Hillary Clinton rarely does, given accusations against her own husband that he’s long denied — but Trump has raised.
“If Hillary Clinton were out there making these same arguments, we know how Donald Trump would respond, by attacking former President Clinton and bringing up old stories from the 90s,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith.
Michelle Obama also had one of the most memorable lines of the Democratic National Convention, saying her family motto is: “When they go low, we go high.”
Clinton has repeated that line in public several times since.
“Michelle Obama is seen as a truly authentic voice that whatever topic she speaks on, people feel that it’s really coming from her bones,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
To the Clinton campaign, Michelle Obama is a crucial asset who can connect with the Democratic base — particularly young people — but also reach independent and undecided voters. That was clear Monday, when the campaign signaled a push into traditionally Republican Arizona by announcing that the first lady would host an early-vote rally in Phoenix on Thursday.
“There is no more powerful advocate for our campaign,” said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “Because the first lady isn’t seen as a political figure, when she does speak out, it has a real impact.”
Even among Clinton’s so-called “uber-surrogates” — the president, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — Michelle Obama has stood out. Once a reluctant campaigner, she has grown more comfortable after more than eight years on the national stage, promoting her childhood obesity and education initiatives, hosting her own events and showing a playful side on talk shows and in interviews.
“Either she’s Meryl Streep, or she’s really genuine about this,” said Robert Watson, an American studies professor at Lynn University. “In this year of plastic candidates, Michelle just seems the most genuine one out there.”
Still, political analysts said the intensity of her advocacy for Clinton is notable.
“It’s unusual for a sitting first lady, or a sitting president for that matter, to campaign so enthusiastically for a presidential candidate. They usually take a lower profile approach. This is indicative of how important both Obamas think this election is,” said Katherine Jellison, chair of the history department at Ohio University who studies the first ladies.
Anita McBride, a veteran of three Republican administrations, said Mrs. Obama’s schedule is more flexible at this stage of the administration because she has held the final events for some of her biggest initiatives.
“It’s sort of wrapping up time where’s it’s never wrapping up time for the president,” said McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “He still has everything coming to his desk every day. Now it’s all about preserving the legacy and giving everything she can to the person she thinks can best reflect their values.”
So far this fall, Michelle Obama has campaigned in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Hampshire. She has done radio and television ads, including a television spot targeting early voters in Iowa, Ohio and Nevada. Arizona is up next, with more appearances expected after that.
With three weeks until the Nov. 8 election, Clinton is leading in many national and battleground state polls as the race has been largely overwhelmed by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and past sexual comments. Clinton is still contending with the slow release of hacked emails that have raised questions about her relationship to Wall Street and inner campaign workings, and will likely be asked about it when she and Trump debate one final time on Wednesday night, but Trump has taken up much of the spotlight.
Michelle Obama so far is one of the few to escape the wrath of Trump, who has spoken harshly about various voting groups, his own Republican leaders and, lately, the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.
“I can’t think of a bolder way for Donald Trump to lose even more standing than he already has by engaging the first lady of the United States,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Hillary Clinton sought Wednesday to build on her widely praised debate performance by making a direct appeal to younger voters whose enthusiasm drove Bernie Sanders’ unlikely campaign.
Clinton was joining Sanders on the campaign trail for the first time since they held a “unity” rally in July in an attempt to unify the Democratic Party. Since then, Clinton has continued struggling to win over young Americans who formed a critical pillar of the coalition that twice elected President Barack Obama.
The setting for the latest display of unity between Clinton and her primary rival — New Hampshire — was indicative of the areas where Clinton’s campaign believes she still has the most work to do. Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, resoundingly defeated Clinton in the February primary in New Hampshire, a battleground state in the November election.
Concerned that his supporters have yet to embrace Clinton’s campaign, Obama said he’s frustrated that people “just do not give her credit.” He suggested one reason was because she’s a woman and the U.S. has never had a female president. In a radio interview airing Wednesday with host Steve Harvey, Obama implored his supporters to make sure they’re registered and to vote for Clinton.
“My legacy’s on the ballot,” Obama said. “All the work we’ve done over the last eight years is on the ballot.”
A day after Donald Trump appeared defensive over his debate performance, the Republican was working to flip the script. He’s claiming the debate was a success for him too, with his campaign saying it had raised about $18 million for Republicans in the day after Monday’s debate.
Both candidates were putting a renewed focus on facetime with voters in the most competitive states during the lull between the first debate and the next major campaign showdown: the vice presidential debate on Tuesday. Trump planned rallies Wednesday in Iowa in Wisconsin in addition to a speech in Illinois.
Trump was hoping to regain his footing after veering into problematic territory the day before, when he revived his decades-old criticism of a former beauty pageant winner for gaining “a massive amount of weight.” Trump’s combative tone after Monday’s debate — he also lashed out at the debate moderator and complained about his microphone — was perceived as a tell by the Republican nominee that he knew his debate performance had been lacking.
Aiming to demonstrate a broad base of support among both parties, Clinton’s campaign was also dispatching Michelle Obama, a Democrat, and former Virginia Sen. John Warner, a Republican.
Mrs. Obama was holding a pair of events in Pennsylvania, a state Clinton is hoping to use as a firewall to prevent Trump from claiming the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Clinton’s campaign also debuted its first television ad featuring the first lady, who has been one of the most effective campaigners for Democrats this year. In the ad, Mrs. Obama casts Clinton as a president “our kids can look up to.”
Warner, whose endorsement for Clinton is his first for a Democrat for president, railed against Trump during an event in the Washington suburbs with Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate and Virginia’s current senator. Warner, long one of Congress’ leading figures on military affairs, said he was “distressed” by Trump’s comments critical of the military’s readiness.
He said Clinton is respectful of the military, adding “that’s one word that’s totally lacking on the other side.”
Peoples reported from Chicago.
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A White House campaign to help military families has hit a new milestone: All 50 states have eased the requirements for military spouses whose careers require a professional license.
Michelle Obama said just three states accepted licenses from other states when she and Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, launched a broader initiative in 2011 to help military families.
Military spouses seek new employment every one to three years, on average, and more often than civilians, based on when their enlisted husbands or wives are deployed to new posts in a new state, the White House said Saturday in a fact sheet. About one-third of military spouses have careers that require a professional license, such as nursing or teaching.
Each move often required these spouses to spend time and money getting re-licensed in their new home state for jobs they already qualified for.
Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden asked the nation’s governors in 2011 to act to streamline state licensing requirements for the military community. Nearly half of the states had addressed the issue by 2012, the first lady told the Military Times newspaper in an interview released Saturday. The administration then issued a report to help officials in the remaining states, she said.
Despite the new milestone, Mrs. Obama said states can do even more on the issue, including having employers come up with creative solutions to offering temporary or expedited licenses to spouses.
The first lady and Jill Biden marked this year’s fifth anniversary of their Joining Forces initiative by announcing that more than 1.2 million veterans and military spouses had been hired.
“Our military is an all-volunteer force, and we need to show our young people that serving in the military allows you to have a great career, both in and out of uniform,” she told the newspaper. “So we need even more employers to step up and hire our veterans, and we need companies to provide more flexible work environments so that military spouses who are moving every few years can keep moving up the career ladder.”
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First lady Michelle Obama told graduates of a historically black university in Mississippi on Saturday that “the power of voting is real and lasting” and they need to cast ballots to protect civil-rights advances made by previous generations.
She said many young African-Americans have disenfranchised themselves because only about 20 percent of them voted in the 2014 midterm elections.
“You can hashtag all over Instagram and Twitter, but those social medial movements will disappear faster than a Snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote,” Obama told an estimated 35,000 people, including 800 graduates of Jackson State University.
She said if people fail to exercise the fundamental right to vote, rights will be under threat.
“Congress will still be gridlocked. Statehouses will continue to roll back voting rights and write discrimination into the law,” Obama said. “We see it right here in Mississippi, just two weeks ago, how swiftly progress can hurdle backward, how easy it is to single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love.”
A bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Phil Bryant says workers can cite their own religious opposition to same-sex marriage to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. It becomes law July 1.
“We’ve got to stand side by side with all of our neighbors — straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, immigrant, Native American,” Obama said. “Because the march for civil rights isn’t just about African-Americans. It’s about all Americans.”
She noted that Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, where she spoke under clear blue skies, was built in the 1950s and was only used by white football teams until 1967, when Jackson State and Grambling State became the first black teams to play there. She also noted that in 1962, the stadium was the site of “what was essentially a pro-Jim Crow rally” with University of Mississippi fans waving Confederate flags and singing a song called, “Never, No Never” to protest the admission of the university’s first black student.
Obama cited the names of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman, and Medgar Evers, a state NAACP leader assassinated in Jackson in 1963.
Obama has spoken at a historically black college or university each year since her husband became president, the White House said. Her appearance at Jackson State is one of three commencement addresses she will make this year. The others are May 26 at the Santa Fe Indian School and June 3 at the City College of New York campus in Harlem.
She and President Barack Obama socialized with members of the British royal family Friday in London.
“I may be a little bit jet lagged, but I’m here right now to celebrate with all of you,” she said in Mississippi.
The university awarded her an honorary doctorate degree before her speech. Noting the school mascot, she won applause from the crowd as she said: “Hey, y’all. I’m a Tiger now.”
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
A bipartisan Senate agreement would revise healthier meal standards put into place over the last few years to give schools more flexibility in what they serve the nation’s schoolchildren, easing requirements on whole grains and delaying an upcoming deadline to cut sodium levels on the lunch line.
While legislation released by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday would placate some schools that have complained the rules are burdensome, it is greatly scaled back from an unsuccessful 2014 House Republican effort to allow some schools to opt out of the rules entirely. The panel is scheduled to vote on the measure on Wednesday.
After more than two years of public quarreling, the bill signals a possible truce for a group of school nutrition directors and first lady Michelle Obama, an outspoken proponent of healthier eating during her husband’s seven years in office.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools, said it is supportive of the agreement negotiated by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
“In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students,” the association’s president, Jean Ronnei, said.
The White House has yet to weigh in, but committee aides said the administration was involved in negotiations and is expected to be supportive. The aides declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the legislation.
Nutrition advocates who have fiercely defended the rules were also positive.
“Given all of the aggressive lobbying against school nutrition over the past few years, it’s remarkable that the Senate bill is as strong a way forward as it is,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science and the Public Interest.
The five-year Senate legislation would direct the Agriculture Department to revise the whole grain and sodium standards within 90 days of the bill’s enactment, meaning the new standards could be in place by next school year if Congress acts quickly. Under the agreement between those negotiating the bill, the new rules would scale back the whole grain standards to require that 80 percent of grains on the lunch line must be whole grain rich, or more than half whole grain. Currently, all grains are required to be whole grain rich, though some schools are now allowed to get waivers from that requirement.
Schools have said the whole grain rules were too tough in some cases, as whole grain pasta is harder to cook and some kids don’t like it as much. Southern schools have had problems finding tasty whole grain biscuits and grits; schools in the Southwest say their students reject whole grain tortillas.
The agreement would also delay stricter standards on sodium that are scheduled for the 2017 school year. They would now be delayed two years, and a study would measure the benefits of those reductions.
The legislation would also require the government to figure out how to reduce waste of fruits and vegetables, which children are now required to take on the lunch line. Some just throw them away.
The bill requires the Agriculture Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with solutions like sharing tables where children can leave food they don’t want. Some local health authorities have discouraged that approach.
The legislation would also put more resources into summer feeding programs and attempt to expand the ways in which those foods are served.
The rules phased in since 2012 set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the new standards are stricter.
The compromise seemed impossible just a year and a half ago, when the association aggressively lobbied against the administration’s standards and backed the GOP effort to allow schools to opt out of them. The first lady held a rare event at the White House, calling out the School Nutrition Association by name. She said she would fight “until the bitter end” to keep the rules intact.
Supporters of the Senate bill are hoping that an agreement among the formerly feuding parties could influence the House, which has not yet introduced a bill.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MCJalonick
This story corrects that Obama has been in office seven years, not two.
Paying tribute to those who helped clear a path for him, President Barack Obama said women of the civil rights movement were “the thinkers and the doers” who made things happen and that every American has benefited from their labor and sacrifice.
“Women made the movement happen,” he declared Saturday night.
Obama said black women were the “foot soldiers” who did the behind-the-scenes work of strategizing boycotts and organizing marches while others received the credit.
“Even if they weren’t allowed to run the civil rights organizations on paper, behind the scenes they were the thinkers and the doers making things happen each and every day, doing the work that no one else wanted to do,” he said in a keynote speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner.
But Obama said that while black women and girls have made progress since and are opening more of their own businesses and graduating from high school and college at higher rates, they are still overrepresented in low-paying jobs and underrepresented in management.
He even invoked his wife, Michelle, as an example of the attitudes about black women that he said persist. The first lady, a lawyer with degrees from two Ivy League universities, has spoken on occasion of being told by her teachers that she was setting her sights too high.
“Those stereotypes and social pressures, they still affect our girls,” said Obama, the father of two teenage daughters. “So we all have to be louder than the voices that are telling our girls they’re not good enough, that they’ve got to look a certain way or they’ve got to act a certain way or set their goals at a certain level.”
Obama has had the dinner spotlight to himself during all but one of his nearly seven years in office. But with the campaign to succeed him in full swing, he had some competition for attention at Saturday’s gathering sponsored by a major Democratic Party constituency group.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wore lipstick red, attended the dinner to mingle with the crowd of several thousand. Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a late entry into the Democratic race, attended a caucus prayer breakfast.
In his remarks, Obama also touched on the issue of criminal justice, promising to work with CBC members and other lawmakers in the months ahead to advance legislation intended to make the system fairer and encourage the use of diversion and prevention programs.
He also swiped at conservatives who blame him for animosity toward law enforcement officers.
“I want to repeat because somehow this never shows up on Fox News,” Obama said. “I want to repeat because I’ve said it a lot, unwaveringly, all the time: Our law enforcement officers do outstanding work in an incredibly difficult and dangerous job. They put their lives on the line for our safety. We appreciate them and we love them.”
Among those honored Saturday night was the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, an organizer of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965, and who was badly beaten by police. She celebrated the march’s 50th anniversary earlier this year by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, while holding hands with Obama.
Boynton Robinson died late last month at age 104.
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President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle earned $477,383 in 2014, a decline over the past few years as sales of the president’s biographies declined, according to their tax return released by the White House on Friday.
Obama is paid $400,000 for his position as the U.S. president. For 2014, the couple paid $93,362 in income taxes.
The couple’s return showed they gave $70,712 to 33 charities with the largest gift of $22,012 going to Fisher House Foundation, which houses military families while a relative receives treatment.
Most of the Obamas’ income above his government salary came from publishers Dystel and Goderich and Random House, and interest, according to the return.
The Obamas earned $503,183 in 2013 and $662,076 in 2012. Barack Obama’s highest income since becoming the 44th president was in 2009, the year he took office, when he reported income of $5.5 million, which included book sales and the Nobel Peace Prize.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, a community college professor, also released their tax returns on Friday, reporting a combined income of $388,844.
Michelle Obama’s fashionable clothing has become something of a given in her five-plus years as first lady. Yet her wardrobe still is the subject of endless public fascination and one long-simmering question: Who pays for those incredible outfits?
It’s no small matter. Her high-low fashion choices mix everyday, off-the-rack fare with custom creations from top designers whose gowns can run into five figures.
In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has turned heads with a forest-green Naeem Khan dress at the opening of a new costume gallery at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She shimmered in a silver Marchesa gown at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. And her flowered shirtdress for a Mother’s Day tea at the White House (recycled from an earlier event) hit the just right note for an audience of military moms.
It takes money to pull that off, month after month. Those three dresses by themselves could add up to more than $15,000 retail, not to mention accessories such as shoes and jewelry.
Is it the taxpayers who foot the bill? No. (Despite what critics say.)
Is it Mrs. Obama? Usually, but not always.
Does she pay full price? Not likely.
Does she ever borrow gowns from designers? No.
The financing of the first lady’s wardrobe is something the Obama White House is loath to discuss. It’s a subject that has bedeviled presidents and their wives for centuries. First ladies are expected to dress well, but the job doesn’t come with a clothing allowance or a salary.
Mary Todd Lincoln racked up tens of thousands of dollars in clothing bills and considered selling manure from the White House grounds to pay them off, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. Jacqueline Kennedy’s father-in-law stepped in to finance her Oleg Cassini wardrobe to keep clothes from becoming a political liability for President John Kennedy. Nancy Reagan got grief for borrowing designer gowns and not always returning them or reporting them as gifts.
Laura Bush, in her memoir, said she was “amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy” as first lady.
How does Mrs. Obama, a fashion icon with far more expensive tastes than Mrs. Bush, swing it?
For starters, the Obamas reported adjusted income of $481,000 last year, and assets worth $1.8 million to $7 million.
And like most people, Mrs. Obama (mostly her personal aide, really) looks for discounts.
And, for really big events, the first lady has an option not available to every fashionista.
Here’s how Joanna Rosholm, press secretary to the first lady, explains it:
“Mrs. Obama pays for her clothing. For official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady’s clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government. They are then stored by the National Archives.”
That saves Mrs. Obama considerable money, although the White House refused to say how often the first lady wears donated clothes and the National Archives declined to say how many such items it has in storage. The White House did say that the first lady doesn’t borrow any clothing and, for the most part, buys her own clothes.
The clothing donated by designers includes Mrs. Obama’s two inaugural gowns made by Jason Wu, a lesser-known designer before Mrs. Obama turned him into a star in the fashion firmament. Wu declined to discuss how he works with the first lady.
Mrs. Obama and Wu both were there when the first inaugural gown was presented to the Smithsonian in March 2010. The first lady said in her remarks: “The dress I donated today, made by Jason Wu, is a masterpiece.” But the Smithsonian lists the gown as a “gift of Jason Wu in honor of first lady” Michelle Obama, making clear it came from him. The first lady’s office had no comment on that.
Two other examples of gowns worn by the first lady that were donated by designers: the blue Carolina Herrera gown that Mrs. Obama wore to February ‘s state dinner for French President Francois Hollande and the gold beaded Naeem Khan gown that Mrs. Obama wore to the 2012 governors ball, now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Herrera and Khan declined comment.
The first lady’s office had no comment on whether the couture gowns worn by Mrs. Obama for her six other White House state dinners also were donated. Nor would it say how many gowns have been donated for the array of other big events for which the first lady is expected to appear in couture finery, such as the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies, governors’ dinners and White House correspondents’ dinners.
Wearing donated gowns represents a change in practice from the Bush administration.
Anita McBride, chief of staff to Laura Bush during her time as first lady, said Mrs. Bush paid for all her clothes, including her two inaugural gowns: a red crystal-embroidered gown by Texan Michael Faircloth and a silver and blue V-neck creation of Oscar de la Renta.
McBride credits the Obama White House with finding a cost-saving way to “keep Mrs. Obama in all those incredible clothes and to have the use of them not once but multiple times.”
The costs of a custom couture gown can be phenomenal, particularly if it is highly embellished with something like beading.
New Yorker Sarah Phillips, who designed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1993 inaugural gown, puts the full cost of that violet beaded lace sheath in the range of $50,000, with the Presidential Inaugural Committee paying $10,000 and Phillips and the workshop covering the bulk of the costs. Phillips isn’t sure whether Clinton herself paid anything toward the dress, but the Smithsonian’s website describes the gown as a “gift of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Presidential Inaugural Committee.”
Lawyers who served in the Obama and Bush White Houses describe taking care in working with the first lady’s office to ensure that arrangements with designers didn’t run afoul of ethics rules designed to guard against conflicts of interest and questionable quid pro quos.
Beyond the unknowns about how often Mrs. Obama’s clothes are donated, there are questions about how much she pays for those she purchases.
In a 2011 Washington Post story about Mrs. Obama’s personal assistant, Meredith Koop, the first lady’s office said Koop acted on Mrs. Obama’s behalf “in arranging for purchases, including considering the best offered price and buying on discount if discounts are available.”
That’s still true today, the first lady’s office says, without elaborating.
Several designers who have provided clothes for the first lady declined to discuss their arrangements. But given the prestige that comes with dressing Mrs. Obama, it’s widely thought that designers are eager to cut the first lady a break. Former White House lawyers said any discounts provided to the first lady would have to be in line with what designers offer other top customers to avoid being considered gifts.
Paco Underhill, author of “What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping,” said the markups on designer clothes are “astronomical” — and the discounts can be steep as well.
“Some of the routine discounts that people ask for are 40 percent off,” he said. “Whether they get it is subject to somebody’s discretion.”
First ladies have tried all sorts of tactics to hold down their clothing costs, including keeping some dresses in rotation.
Mrs. Obama wore the same dress to this year’s Mother’s Day tea that she’d worn to lunch with Katy Perry in October 2012. She often switches around separates, belts and other accessories to give clothes in her wardrobe a fresh look.
Recycling carries its own risks.
Mrs. Bush, in her memoir, tells of arriving at a TV studio and noticing a picture on the wall that showed she’d worn the same suit to her last interview there.
“Quickly, I exchanged tops with my press secretary, so that it would seem as if I had more wardrobe variety,” she recalled.