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The cost of living… in the White House

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at home in the White House. The finances of the First Family are tighter than you'd think, says New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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In her new book “The Obamas,” New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor goes behind the scenes in the White House to report on what life’s like in the most famous house in America. Kantor has been following President Obama and First Lady Michelle since 2007, when they made the leap from being an exceptional young family from Chicago to occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Most of us probably think the Obamas live a lavish life on the taxpayers’ dime, but, according to Kantor, finances are tight in the White House. While rent is free, just about nothing else is. The president and first lady pay for their food, parties, vacations, butlers, housekeepers, ushers… and at Ritz Carleton prices. If they want to bring someone on Air Force One who isn’t in the official traveling delegation, they have to reimburse the American people the equivalent of first-class airfare for the flight.

“People say that there’s kind of a ritual with every new president and first lady. They get to the White House, they move in, they start to live there. A month or so in, they get their first bill, and there is a moment of shock,” says Kantor. Being wealthy gives a first family a real advantage and — while the Obamas are rich Americans by just about any measure — they don’t have the kind of personal wealth that can move the needle in the White House. It makes you wonder: can we ever have a truly middle-class president?

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