CHICAGO - Giving, service and compassion are recurrent themes on the campaign trail for Sen. Barack Obama, but the Democratic presidential contender from Illinois has only recently dug deep into his own pockets to support charitable causes.
Obama has enjoyed a robust household income throughout his political career in the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate. But for most of that time he has reported comparatively little by national standards in charitable contributions on his tax returns, records released by Obama show.
Public attention to charitable gifts has led to uncomfortable moments for prominent political figures. Former Vice President Al Gore came in for withering ridicule in 1998 when his tax return showed he had contributed just $353 to charity. So did former President Bill Clinton, after a review of old tax returns revealed that he had once claimed a $75 deduction for donating a suit with ripped pants to the Salvation Army, as well as $2 for a pair of used underwear and $9 for six pairs of used socks.
Obama’s household income has been inflated the past two years from the proceeds of lucrative book deals he signed shortly before entering the Senate in 2005. He pledged to turn over $200,000 of the book money to charity.
On their just-filed 2006 tax return, Obama and his wife, a hospital administrator, reported taxable income of $983,626 and claimed deductions for $60,307 in charitable donations. In 2005 they earned a combined $1.65 million and gave away about $77,300.
In 2002, the year before Obama launched his campaign for U.S. Senate, the Obamas reported income of $259,394, ranking them in the top 2 percent of U.S. households, according to Census Bureau statistics. That year the Obamas claimed $1,050 in deductions for gifts to charity, or 0.4 percent of their income. The average U.S. household totaled $1,872 in gifts to charity in 2002, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
The national average for charitable giving has long hovered at 2.2 percent of household income, according to the Glenview, Ill.-based Giving USA Foundation, which tracks trends in philanthropy. Obama tax returns dating to 1997 show he fell well below that benchmark until 2005, the year he arrived in Washington.
Both Obama and his wife, Michelle, declined to respond to questions about their charitable donations.
Gene Tempel, executive director of Indiana’s philanthropy center, said 89 percent of U.S. households give to charity each year and Americans expect to see personal generosity from public servants as well. “They have a bully pulpit to influence the behavior of others and they have an opportunity to lead by example,” Tempel said.
Elected officials and political candidates are not required to release their tax returns, and Obama may be the only major presidential contender to have done so this year, making it difficult to compare his charitable giving with that of his rivals.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney released their 2006 returns this month. Bush and the first lady reported gifts to charities and non-profits totaling $78,100 on income of $765,801. Cheney and his wife had income of $1.6 million and gave $104,425 to charity.
Politicians who do make their returns public typically say they are doing so in a show of transparency. But Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the disclosures also lead to a “naked moment” for those politicians by giving voters a glimpse of what they’re like outside the limelight.
Candidates who skimp on personal donations risk a political price, said Lehane, a former spokesman for Gore who also worked in the Clinton White House.
“For a Democrat in particular, given that they tend to be professing a `we, not me’ message, it’s always an opportunity to step on the third rail if your charitable contributions don’t stack up,” Lehane said.
Obama has worked as a community organizer in poor neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side and has served on the boards of prominent Chicago-based philanthropies. His commitment to community service plays a central role in the two best-selling books he has published, and he often talks about the importance of reaching out to those in need.
“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern University graduates last year at commencement ceremonies. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through those who are different from us: the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
Obama released several years of past tax returns during his 2004 U.S. Senate run and has made subsequent returns public as well.
Obama signed two book deals worth nearly $2.3 million before entering the Senate. He received about $1.2 million of the book money in 2005, but tax records show the Obamas lived comfortably before then.
From 1997 through 2004, Obama earned dual paychecks for his work as a state lawmaker and as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Over the same period, his wife, Michelle, worked first for the University of Chicago and then for the University of Chicago Hospitals. Their household income also was augmented in most years by thousands of dollars Obama earned from practicing law, giving speeches or serving as a director of charitable foundations.
Donations of cash or property are an important measure of commitment to charity, but they aren’t the only ones. Many people donate their time to work for social causes or non-profit groups, and that is not deductible on tax forms.
Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy, said political celebrities often accomplish much for the needy by lending their star power to fundraising efforts that attract donations from others.
“It is important to consider the volunteering, fundraising and publicity-generating efforts of candidates for charities in addition to their cash donations,” Borochoff said in an e-mail. “Politicians ... can do far more for non-profits by using their high-profile campaigns to draw attention to causes than donating a few thousand dollars.”
On a trip to Omaha in October 2005, Obama met with investment guru Warren Buffett and came away with the influential billionaire’s accolades. Then, as a favor to Buffett’s daughter, Obama spoke at a fundraiser for a charity benefiting girls in the Omaha area. His appearance brought in $154,000 for the group.
The Obamas are members of Trinity United Church of Christ. The South Side Chicago congregation encourages its members to tithe 10 percent of their income, according to a church spokeswoman. The Obamas clearly fell short of that goal, their tax returns indicate.
From 1997 through 2002, the Obamas reported devoting less than 1 percent of their household income to charity. In 2005, as the book-deal money poured in, they reported $1.65 million in combined income, with $77,315, or 4.7 percent, going to charity.
Only a few of the tax returns released by Obama detail the recipients of his charity. In 1998, when the Obamas reported a combined household income of $191,146 and $1,100 in cash donations to charity, the biggest gift went to Trinity. It totaled $400, about 0.2 percent of their combined income.
In 2005 they gave the church $5,000 and in 2006 it received $22,500. Over the past two years, the Obamas have claimed charitable deductions for $45,000 in gifts to reading programs; $31,000 to CARE, an international aid group; $13,107 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; and $5,000 to the Muntu Dance Theatre. Michelle Obama serves on the board of directors of the South Side dance troupe.