Do you have one thing in common with every U.S. President over the last 100 years? You do if you paid federal taxes.
Presidents also have to deal with personal taxes, and it usually doesn't come any easier for them than it does for us. Franklin D. Roosevelt even sent a letter to the IRS Commissioner expressing an inability to determine how much he owed. Roosevelt sent in what he considered to be "well above half" of the taxes owed and asked the IRS to tell him how much he owed as a balance. (NOTE: Don't try that yourself. You don't have that many things in common with Presidents.)
Tax returns of U.S. Presidents can provide interesting insights into our leaders. Thanks to the Tax History Project, you can look up Presidential tax returns dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and unearth some surprising facts like these:
- Harry Truman – Whenever you feel like complaining about your tax bill, think about the top tax rate in President Truman's time. Post-war America in 1946 had a top federal income tax rate of 86.45% on all income over $200,000. Truman did not quite reach that level in 1946, but he did pay $40,765.24 on an adjusted gross income of $75,341.06 (approximately 54%).
- Richard Nixon – "Tricky Dick" had an adjusted gross income of just over $268,000 in 1972 but had a tax bill of only $4298.17. How is that possible? Nixon's deductible contributions in 1972 were a staggering $134,388 — at the 50% limitation of his adjusted gross income. All but $795 of that total was a carryover from 1971. His carryover from 1970 was even larger. 1969's carryover was over $418,000. Where did this all come from? Mostly from a 1969 charitable contribution of "personal papers, manuscripts, and other materials" appraised at $576,000.
We know this because Nixon released his tax returns in 1973 in response to feedback from his infamous "I am not a crook" statement regarding the Watergate scandal. A relatively short time later, Nixon found himself impeached, and with over $476,000 in errors discovered in his tax returns by the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, in part from the overvaluation of his contributed papers. The IRS followed up by concluding that Nixon owed $432,787, a sum that Nixon agreed to pay.
- Jimmy Carter – Few people think of President Carter as a party animal, but his 1978 tax form includes an interesting entry on his Form 2106, "Employee Business Expenses." Under "Part I, Employee Business Expenses Deductible in Computing Adjusted Gross Income", the Carters list a total of $13,165.80. $12,110.94 of that was for "Staff Party and Receptions." (If you are old enough to remember the President's hapless brother, insert your own "Billy Beer" joke here).
Given Carter's Presidential salary of $250,000, it's pretty impressive to have over $12,000 in party expenses. Not only that, the party expenses were "above the line" deductions that directly reduce taxable income. These party expenses helped reduce the Carters' tax bill to $91,230 on an adjusted gross income of $254,020.
- Ronald Reagan – In 1981, Reagan pulled in a presidential salary of $189,167, with a few small checks from TV appearances bringing his collective salary to $193,276. Interest income accounted for most of the rest of the Reagans' $418,826 in income. Ron and Nancy's final tax bill came in at $165,291.
There are no residual checks on Reagan's 1981 tax return for any of his old movies, but there is an interesting entry of $3,500 of taxable income from sources outside the U.S. listed for "Japanese Rights to Publish Book." The return does not say which book, but from the timing, it is likely to be "The Reagan Wit: The Humor of the American President."
- Barack Obama – The current First Family had a combined income of $447,880 in 2015 with the President's salary of $394,454 supplemented by $56,069 on income as an author. The Obamas paid $81,472 in taxes on an adjusted gross income of $436,065.
Charities received their fair share from the First Family. Barack and Michelle claimed just over $64,000 in charitable deductions in their 2015 return, but they spread their funds around to 34 different charities. Recipients include well-known charities like the Red Cross and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, as well as lesser-known or local charities such as the Central Illinois Food Bank and Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina Women in Action). We guess that their income will skyrocket once they leave office.
Check out the Tax History Project for more interesting comparisons of Presidential taxes over the years. As you do, take note of one other interesting fact — tax forms of the past were far simpler than today's head-scratchers. Unfortunately for our next President as well as for the rest of us, tax forms are unlikely to get any simpler in the future.
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