Tax returns: Is Obama highest earning president ever?

President and Michelle Obama earned $5.5 million in 2009, the highest total ever reported by a presidential couple. But some of the richest presidents never released their tax returns.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File
President Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, participated in a March ceremony at the White House honoring women from around the world. On Thursday, the Obamas released their tax returns, showing earnings of $5.5 million, mostly from book royalties, the highest total ever reported by a presidential couple.

President and Michelle Obama earned more money last year than any other presidential couple who have released their tax returns.

Their $5.5 million, coming largely from royalties from President Obama's books, was more than four times what George H.W. Bush earned in 1991 ($1.3 million) and more than five times what Bill Clinton made in 1996 ($1.1 million), according to documents amassed by the Tax History Project.

Even adjusting for inflation, the Obamas come out ahead of, say, Franklin Roosevelt, a wealthy man who earned a net income of $82,392.57 in 1937 ($1.2 million in 2009 dollars).

"I was a little surprised" at the Obamas earnings, says Joseph Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project, established by the nonprofit Tax Analysts publishing group in Falls Church, Va. "I guess there's money to be made in publishing."

Although President Obama is tops in known presidential earnings, he plays second fiddle to Vice President Dick Cheney, who routinely earned $1 million-plus incomes during his years in office, including $8.8 million in 2005. That total was reportedly inflated by the Cheneys exercising stock options set aside in 2001 for charity.

It's quite possible that other presidents have made even more, but until President Nixon there was no established custom of releasing presidential tax returns. The Roosevelt returns were released long after FDR's passing, says Mr. Thorndike.

Other potential big earners might be presidents Kennedy and Hoover, but their descendants have declined to release their tax returns.

"These guys release their returns even though they don't have to," Thorndike says. "There's a real sacrifice of privacy in releasing this.... I think that's a good thing."

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