Obama credit card declined: Does he need to get out more?

President Obama had his credit card declined when he tried to pay for dinner at a fancy restaurant in New York. He's not the only US chief executive to suffer wallet embarrassment.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama smiles after signing an executive order to improve security measures for government credit and debit cards during an event at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, on Friday, in Washington.

Ever suffered a financial indignity in public? President Obama has. He had his credit card declined when he tried to pay for dinner at a fancy restaurant in New York last month. 

At least that’s the story he told to employees of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Friday, where he spoke after signing an executive order to strengthen security for credit and debit cards.

It’s true – sometimes the news writes itself.

The restaurant in question was Estela, in downtown Manhattan. The president and first lady Michelle Obama were in town for the former’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

According to CNN, the couple dined on burrata with salsa verde and charred bread, plus an endive salad with walnuts and anchovies. Then came the reckoning.

Restaurant workers had to tell the leader of what used to be called the "free world" that his plastic wasn’t any good at their place because the credit card company would not accept it for payment of the bill.

“I guess I don’t use it enough, so they thought there was some fraud going on,” said Mr.  Obama. “Luckily, Michelle had hers. I was trying to explain to the waitress that I’ve really been paying my bills.”

Obama was trying to use his own experience as evidence of the extent of consumer fraud, and why people need protection. Or something like that. “Even I’m affected by this,” he said.

But come on, for critics this will be an irresistible metaphor for preconceived notions about the administration. Think Obama’s too profligate with federal spending? Of course he is – his own credit card was declined! Too out of touch with reality to run the nation? Can’t even get his credit card accepted! Lives in a bubble? Doesn’t even carry enough cash to pay for a salad! 

And so forth.

As to the truth of any of these, we’ll just note tangentially that while the accumulated US federal debt is indeed humongous, the year-to-year deficit is actually dropping.

“Obama has credit card rejected at restaurant. Server evidently didn’t get deficit-is-dropping talking points,” tweeted New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker.

Obama’s not the only US chief executive to suffer wallet embarrassment. According to a 2011 piece from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dwight Eisenhower once had to borrow money from a bodyguard to buy a grandchild a toy at a five-and-dime.

In 2005, President George W. Bush found himself without cash as the collection plate approached at the National Prayer Service. He declined Vice President Dick Cheney’s offer of a bail-out bill and instead borrowed money from his father, former President George H. W. Bush, who was sitting behind him.

As president, Bill Clinton was notorious for cadging money from Secret Service agents when shopping.

At least Obama seems to have cash in hand when he buys ice cream on Martha’s Vineyard. Remember, it isn’t as if presidents are used to food being free.

They have to pay for personal meals for themselves and their family at the White House out of their salary. It’s only state dinners and other official meals that get covered by the US government.

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