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Out of Touch? Nah, They're Just Better Than Everyone Else

by digby

Begala and Matalin on Biltzer this afternoon:

Blitzer: In an interview the other day with the New York Times, the president said about his press secretary Robert Gibbs, Paul let me read it to you:

He said "We've been on this ride together since I won my Senate primary in 2004 ... He's had a six-year stretch now where basically he's been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay."

Now realtively modest pay has caused a bit of a stir out there. We've checked and he's getting 172,200 dollarsa year. The president says that's relatively modest. the bureau of labor statistics says the mean annual salary in the US is 42,000 dollars. the question is, is the president out of touch? Is he giving the impression that he's out of touch when he says someone making 172,000 a year is getting a relatively modest salary?

Begala: It that adverb, it's that modifier "relative." The president is exactly right. I'm going to defend him on this. Robert Gibbs is an astonishingly powerful man who's been serving our country. And yeah that's a good paycheck, it really is. 172 grand? But just to put it into context, the chief flack for Goldman Sachs makes over a million bucks a year, just for being a spokesman for an investment bank! Sarah Palin, some obscure pundit on some other channel, makes ten to fifteen million a year if you add in the coloring books that she publishes.

Gibbs should be in that range. It's a relatively small amount compared to what he could or should be making in the private sector.

Blitzer: What do you think Mary?

Matalin: I think the president is out of touch, but not for that statement. These jobs, if you take them apart, that salary is little more that three times, maybe four times than the average salary. But he's not working an average job, he's not working at an average government job. He really is working, and Paul did this too in the Whiter House, you really do work three shifts a day. You work 24 hours a day. You eat lunch at your desk. There's many days when you are lucky if you can get to the bathroom. And when you do that for a sustained period, your brain starts to bubble away. So I think it's a little unfair to attack the president on this, I do.

Blitzer: But does the impression, I guess ... what folks out there ... take a look at nearly 10 percent unemployment right now, and the president is saying spomebody making 172,000 dollars a year is relatively modest, the impression you get is that the president coulod be out of touch with average folks out there around the country Paul.

Begala: But, but, I do think ... again, it's that word "relatively." You know a factor in a campaign, in what was otherwise a terrific interview with pastor Rick Warren, John McCain was asked by Pastor Warren what constitutes rich, McCain said "five million dollars a year." Now he was kind of joking, to tell you the truth. It doesn't mean John McCain's out of touch. He was trying to make a point that he wasn't trying to tax anybody. The President's trying to make a point here --- he's not trying to say that 172 thousand dollars a year is not a good paycheck. But compared to what the guy could be making... And, as Mary points out, if it's a hourly wage, then Gibbs is probably making about fifty cents an hour.

Blitzer: And we know he's working hard and deserves to take some time off because he's been working hard all these ... but, I'll, Mary, I'll let you have the final thought.Was the president correct when he said this is a relatively modest paycheck.

Matalin: Uh, uh, I'll go to your other question which is he ...

Blitzer: No no, answer that one...was he right when he said, "this is a relatively modest paycheck."

Matalin: To the average American it's a good paycheck. For those kinds of jobs, and those hours, it is minimum wage. That's how hard those jobs are.

Blitzer: We'll leave it at that guys.

I'll just let that sit there for a minute. Read it again, keeping in mind that Robert Gibbs is the presidential press secretary. According to these guys the job is right up there with curing cancer for sheer importance to the future of mankind.

Look, you can't blame these two. They are both glugging from the same taxpayer trough half the time and have a big investment in believing that what they do is so special and so unique that they are just a little bit better than lesser people who toil at less exalted labor.

And evidently, they truly believe regular people don't eat lunch at their desks and work long hours and have huge responsibilities. Or if they do, they are in very important jobs like media and investment banking where people are paid what they are "worth." Indeed, they seem to believe it's actually a huge sacrifice that someone should have to work for a mere 172k a year(plus BIG perks) even for just a few years until they can cash out like Gibbs is about to do and start making a decent salary of five million dollars a year or more.

This is one of the most revealing conversations Wolf Blitzer accidentally ever led. (Judging from their discomfort toward the end, I'd have to guess they wish they had been asked something else.) And it pretty well confirms for me that they are beyond "out of touch" --- they are living in their own universe. If they are comparing public servants to million dollar celebrities rather than average Americans then it says everything you need to know about why they have placed all their faith in the magical markets to fix things. In their America, that's how it works.

Walter Shapiro wrote about this yesterday and made an excellent point:

Obama's sympathetic comments about Gibbs' financial sacrifice illustrate that populism remains an abstraction for the president, despite the persistence of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In the world of Obama (or Clinton or either Bush), it is par for the course that William Daley, the new White House chief of staff, served as Midwest chairman for JP Morgan Chase between his stints in government. Or that Rahm Emanuel made $16 million as an investment banker during the three years between his departure from the Clinton White House and his 2002 election to the House.


There was an era (personified by the likes of Truman and Sam Rayburn in the 1950s) when a high-level career in public service and an upper-middle-class income seemed reward enough. These bygone values endure among many in the military and the federal judiciary -- not to mention among the underpaid denizens of the White House briefing room. But too often power players in Washington believe that if they see the president every day, appear on television and have a permanent seat on Air Force One, they are entitled to get rich as soon as they leave government.

When it comes to personal money, there is a sense in Washington that what happens within the Beltway stays within the Beltway. But voters are not dumb, even if more than 90 percent of them survive on less than $172,000 a year. What happens in government is not the only trigger for populist outrage. For it is equally easy to become enraged by career arcs after government.

You know, for me it's even beyond the lack of empathy and common touch. It's the political malpractice that I can't get over. Are these people really so insulated in green rooms and limousines and fat cat fundraisers that they have no idea they sound like total assholes? Huge numbers of people in this country are living in economic terror right now, wondering if they are going to have a roof over their heads next month. They'd love to eat lunch at their desk --- in fact, they'd love to have a desk. And these idiots are trying to tell us that 172k a year is minimum wage?

I'd like them to tell it to this guy who was featured on a CNN segment just a short while before the pampered celebrities were asked about what a "relatively modest" paycheck is:

I felt like crying right along with him. And then a few minutes later, I felt like throwing up watching the so-called populist Democrat Paul Begala and his sister in arms the cruel PR flack Mary Matalin sit there and tell America that Robert Gibbs is worth so much more than that man and whining that he's underpaid by only making 172,000 a year. Completely clueless. They live in another world.