One of the best perks about being president is the fact that you get to live in the White House. The building is surrounded in historical magnificence, architectural wonder… and all the free meals you could want, at whatever hour of the day you want them.
There are, of course, caveats with living in the White House. Even the leader of the free world has to follow the rules that are set at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every once in a while. Here are some of the general rules that come with living in the White House that every president has to abide by. You might be surprised to learn who pays for the president’s meals.
Moving into the White House means you have to face your own mortality head-on. The job is, after all, one of the most dangerous in the world, considering the number of people who make credible threats on whoever is the president each year is in the hundreds. As such, it’s important to plan for the possibility that you, as president, could die while in office.
Only eight presidents in total have died while serving as commander-in-chief, but that represents about 17 percent of the total number of people who took on the job. As such, one of the first projects a president must do is plan their own funeral. They must decide how much fanfare will be involved, whether it will be a simple or grand occasion, and all the minute details that go into a national day of sorrow. It’s kinda scary to think about, but making tough decisions is part of the job.
Pack Your Bags
Presidents are supposed to work in the White House, but it’s also their home. As such, tradition dictates that their immediate family — their spouse, and their younger children, if they have any — are supposed to live with them as well. Some exceptions apply, like if the president’s kids are in college or at a boarding school.
President Donald Trump broke this protocol when his wife, Melania, and their son, Baron, stayed in New York to allow him to finish up his school year. Many considered the breach of decorum disrespectful to the office. Fortunately, it was a short-lived controversy, and the first lady and her son moved in later that year.
Two Rooms Can’t Be Decorated
The first lady is also generally responsible for decorating the White House, but she and the president also have rules to abide by in that respect. Two rooms, in particular, cannot be changed: the Oval Office and the Lincoln Bedroom. Their historical significance is too great to allow new presidents to change them.
Minor adjustments are allowed — the Oval Office is, after all, the main room where the president works, and so they are given some leeway. However, if a major change is to occur, it must get the approval of a number of historical associations that manage the White House’s property and integrity.
There Is A Budget For Redecorating
There are other rules about decorating, too. While the Oval Office and the Lincoln Bedroom are, for the most part, off-limits, the first family basically has carte blanche to decorate the other rooms how they please. But there are limits here, too, which are reasonable…
Presidents are allocated a fund of money to redecorate their homes with, paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Going above that amount is an option they can take, but it would mean that they’d have to pay for the extra decor out of their own bank accounts. It might look a little bit pretentious, too, if they go overboard.
Rules About Moving In
Moving into a new home is an arduous challenge for any family. For the First Family, it’s even more difficult. Moving trucks or vans, and a company that helps load the family’s belongings, must be hired by the First Family before arriving at the White House. But once they get there, it gets even more complicated.
For security, the vehicles used to move the family’s belongings, and the company hired out to help, cannot move the items inside — once they reach the White House grounds, staff members take over the process, moving the property into the White House. The first lady generally manages the process of arranging where things go, with the staff helping her to move it all around.
The Christmas Tree’s Theme
I honestly didn’t know families did this in their own homes until very recently, but I did know that every president is supposed to pick a theme for their Christmas tree when they put one up in the White House. This tradition was started in 1961, when Jacqueline Kennedy decorated the White House for the holiday. It’s remained in place ever since, and generally, the first lady is tasked with the process of choosing the theme.
Themes can be as specific or as generic as first ladies want them to be. One year, the theme was “Antique Toys.” In 2017, first lady Melania Trump picked “Time-Honored Traditions” as the theme.
The Strict Move-In Date
The Constitution sets a strict time and date for when the president is inaugurated into office. That date is adhered to when it comes to life in the White House, too. A new president cannot move into the grounds of the White House until exactly January 20 of their inauguration year. The new president moves in while the old one moves out, and the new president’s family only has 12 hours, for security reasons, to get everything in.
This isn’t generally too big of a problem. In 2017, the Trump family was able to get the move done in about five hours total.
If the president wants to call his mother from the White House, he can’t just use any old phone to do so. Every phone conversation, from a check-in with mom to a call to a foreign leader, has to be monitored on a secure line. This is for national security reasons: if information is shared in a private way on a line that is easy to tap, it compromises the safety of Americans, at home and abroad.
Even the president’s cell phone habits are watched over with scrutiny. Former President Barack Obama had to use a phone provided by the Secret Service, and not his personal blackberry, when he made calls.
The Interior Department
Decorating the White House, a task usually given to the first lady to accomplish, is a difficult endeavor. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to do it alone. The first lady is permitted to hire their own interior designer to help them determine the look of the inside of the White House.
Even though Melania Trump didn’t move into the White House until the summer after her husband became the president, she still hired an interior designer to help make the home ready for when she and Baron were able to move in. For that task, she hired Tham Kannalikham in February of 2017.
It’s not uncommon for a drink or two to be consumed in the White House. Oftentimes, a president or someone in his cabinet may want to have a relaxing drink after a long day, or a state dinner may require libations to be included within it. Whatever the occasion, if you drink wine in the White House, it has to be American-made.
In the 1970s, President Gerald Ford halted all imported wines from being allowed on the White House grounds, and the rule has stuck since then. The wine that is consumed usually comes from three states: Virginia, Idaho, or California.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner
Presidents typically have a very serious list of things they have to get through each day. To see them unwind, relax, and hear a few jokes — even some at their own expense — reassures the public that they’re not causing any harm to their psyche due to the demands of the job. The presidential roast, which occurs at the White House Correspondents Dinner, helps to showcase the president’s “funny” side.
Usually, comedians, reporters, and other celebrities take part in the action, telling jokes or stories about the president or their administration that are meant to make people laugh. The president also tells a few lines, usually to get back in a jovial manner at those who roasted them. President Trump is the only president in recent memory who has not taken part in the roast or the correspondents’ dinner.
The Easter Egg Roll
The first family is also responsible for putting on the Easter Egg Roll, which occurs around Easter each year. Children from Washington D.C. area schools are typically invited to come to the event, where they play games, see the president and his family, and of course, take part in the roll itself.
The tradition has been in place for more than a century. It started with President Rutherford B. Hayes, who allowed children to roll eggs on the White House lawn in 1878. Since that time, it’s become much more organized, but the fun and games aspect of the roll continues on.
The President Buys Their Own Food
A lot of things are free for use in the White House, and the staff caters to the first family’s needs on an almost 24/7 basis. But not everything comes free to the commander-and-chief or for his immediate family members. Food, for example, must be purchased outside of the costs provided for other expenses that are paid for by the taxpayers.
Some exceptions exist — the Presidential Room and ceremonies where esteemed guests are present typically get a pass. But the president cannot indulge himself with food bought for by the American public — they must pay for their own meals.
Thanksgiving comes with many traditions for millions of families across the United States, but for the White House, there’s a separate tradition that might make the average household kind of upset if they had to do it: the pardoning of the turkey.
This tradition started in 1947, but became a regular thing in 1989, when George H.W. Bush did it every year. Since then, it’s been the standard of every president to pardon the turkey that’s meant to be served at the White House for Thanksgiving. After they get pardoned, the turkey generally lives its full life at a farm near Washington D.C.
Get Used To Central Air
Opening a window in the White House is a big no-no. It’s a huge security risk, as intruders could use the opportunity to sneak into the grounds. For that reason, windows cannot be opened from the inside, unless there’s an emergency situation requiring them to be.
Former first lady Michelle Obama once recounted how her daughter, Sasha, opened a window while living in the White House. As soon as she did, the Secret Service was calling them to tell them to shut it right that second! It’s a small luxury, but Michelle said one of the things she was looking forward to, upon leaving the White House, was having an open window in her home.
Keeping History Preserved
The White House is full of historical paintings, pieces of furniture, and even a grand piano that has been in the executive residence for decades. These pieces of decor have to be maintained, and it is the job of the first family to ensure they are well-preserved.
That’s a very tall order to consider. These are not just there for the enjoyment of the president and their family members, but rather, they are more like caretakers of America’s history. It’s a task that members of the first family have taken very seriously over several years, and one that future residents of the White House must also take care to do.
Secret Service Follows The Family Everywhere
It’s no secret that the president has a very demanding — and dangerous — job. Protecting the president against consistent threats on his life is a task set forth by the Secret Service, which has been in existence since the mid-1800s. But it’s not just the president who can expect to be followed by the team…
The president’s family can also expect to have Secret Service detail follow them everywhere. Whether traveling to school, taking a short vacation, or just going into the city to do some volunteer work, first family members have to be protected against the same threats that the president has to deal with.
The “First Car”
The president and his family don’t just get a new house to live in when he takes office — they also get a brand new car! But rather than being something that’s fancy or glamorous, this car is decked out with security features instead.
The president is essentially cut off from the outside world when they get inside the vehicle, which is sometimes nicknamed “The Beast,” or “Cadillac One.” There are communication devices inside, however, so if an emergency happened en route to somewhere, they’d be able to address it. The car, which is weighted down by bullet and bomb-proof hardware, can only reach a top speed of 60 miles per hour, and gets less than 4 miles to the gallon.
Designing The Plates
This part is a pretty cool responsibility the family has to take on. When it comes to hosting dinner parties, the china is probably the most important food-related part. As such, each president and their family is tasked with designing the dinnerwear, including the insignias found on its exterior.
It’s important for presidents to personalize their dinnerwear so that other heads of state can distinguish their leadership from previous leaders. Obama’s china was rimmed in gold, and featured a “Kailua Blue” band that served to point out his home state of Hawaii. In total, Obama’s china collection included more than 3,000 pieces of dinnerwear.
Approvals For Changes
If you’ve ever had to renovate your own home, you’ve likely had to get a permit from the city you live in before going forward. The president has to do something similar if they want to have additional items in the White House.
An update to the bathroom, the addition of a basketball hoop, or any other changes to the White House need to get approved by historical agencies that preserve the White House’s integrity. This ensures that any changes that happen won’t be to the detriment of the White House itself, though most of the requests do get approved.
The Taste Tester
The president has to worry constantly about their own safety… even if they have a rumbly tummy. Case in point: the presidential taste tester. Not much is really known about this individual (or individuals?), but the role supposedly exists to ensure the food the president ends up consuming is safe for them.
It can be problematic for the president if a taste tester isn’t around. In one example, President Barack Obama had to simply stare at his food during a luncheon with Senators in 2013. That’s gotta be tough to do! Fortunately, presidents are typically up to performing the most difficult of tasks… including missing lunch.
No Driving Allowed
Presidents are never allowed to drive their own vehicles on public roads. This is, again, a safety issue: the president has to be secure, and the secret service will not be able to keep them safe if they are driving their own mode of transportation.
There are ways to get around this, however. If a president is on private property, they can take a little time for themselves and drive a vehicle wherever they please. George W. Bush did so when he was on his private ranch in Crawford, Texas. It was probably a welcome break for him to be able to have some normalcy while inside a vehicle!
Don’t Hang Up
It must be hard for presidents to see the ads for all the trendiest technologies that come about, especially cellular smartphones. To ensure national security secrets stay safe, the president is not allowed to have certain kinds of cellular phones. President Obama, in fact, had a smartphone, but wasn’t allowed to use it as president. Instead, he was given a Blackberry device, which was considered somewhat old technology by the time he left office.
Even so, Obama said he treasured the device he was allowed to have. “They’re going to have to pry it out of my hands!” he once said of his Blackberry.
Presidential safety is a big theme on this list. The president has to abide by many rules because their life is constantly in danger, and the Secret Service enforces them in a strict way. One of the biggest rules came about after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — no more convertible car rides.
The fact that it was so easy for someone to assassinate Kennedy made this rule imperative. It also required the transportation that the president rides in to be bullet and bomb-proof (as we’ve already discussed). So, for at least the four years in office that they serve, or perhaps the full eight that they can possibly serve, the president cannot enjoy a convertible car ride while en route to their next event.
The president has to let the Secret Service know what they plan on doing. Spontaneity is not a luxury the president is given — President Obama famously was not allowed to throw a “pickup” basketball game with some of his friends because it was not enough notice for the security detail to prepare for.
In fact, the president cannot do anything that’s outside their normal schedule unless they give the Secret Service at least four hours of notice ahead of time. That’s got to be difficult, to have to plan out every hour of every day for several years!
Stay Out Of Their Private Ventures
Most presidents abide by this rule, but it’s not a cut-in-stone, must follow one for the president to have to live by. The president, to avoid the appearances of conflicts of interest, is not allowed to take any actions or have any control over their businesses, their stocks, or control any other aspect of their private financial lives. Doing so puts doubts into the minds of the American people.
Did the president take this position on a certain policy matter because it was the best decision he could make for the country? Or did they do so knowing it could benefit them financially? Such questions cause huge headaches for everyone involved, so it’s best to avoid any appearances of impropriety.
The president is not allowed to receive gifts. This may seem pretty odd to some, but this one is actually a Constitutional rule! The Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution forbid gifts from foreign dignitaries, including the bestowing of titles of honor. When Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, he refused to take the money that came along with it to avoid violating this rule.
Another clause in the Constitution forbids the president from taking any income that isn’t granted to them through their salary. Besides appearing suspicious, the acceptance of gifts is also illegal!
Can’t Get A Copyright On A Book In Office
It’s not uncommon for presidents to write a book or memoir that details their time in office. One thing you’ll likely never see a president do is write a book while they’re still in office. That’s because federal law states that any product like that created by the president is technically part of the public domain — it can be used by anyone, with or without the president’s permission.
And again, the president couldn’t profit off of the book anyway while in office, because they would be violating the rules against accepting gifts or compensation outside of their regular duties. Speaking of which, most presidents wouldn’t have time to write a book in office anyway — they’d be too busy doing their job and taking time to rest when needed.
Not That Kind Of Football
The presidential football, to anyone who isn’t already aware of what it is, sounds like a fun toy. It’s hardly anything remotely close to that. Instead, the “football” is a briefcase that is constantly carried around by a member of the Secret Service, kept within a close distance to the president. Why?
The football contains a means for the president to make contact with the National Military Command Center at all times when there’s an emergency going on. It’s even rumored to contain the nuclear codes so that the president can order a nuclear strike if they need to.
No Outside Salary (Maybe?)
As mentioned before, the president is not allowed to earn an income outside of what Congress appropriates for them by Constitutional mandate. This ensures that the president doesn’t have other factors affecting their decision-making on policy matters or in times of crises.
This particular rule, however, is being put to the test, given how President Donald Trump is still earning vast sums of money from his many business ventures. It’s unclear if he’s violating any rules set by law, as he’s not technically managing the Trump Organization while he’s in office, but many say it’s still questionable whether it’s legal or not.
Many presidential candidates may say they have a plan for students or college graduates who have outstanding student loans, but a president can’t actually do much about these debts that millions of people are suffering through on their own. It would require an act of Congress, signed by the president, to get something major enacted that would help student loan borrowers in a big way.
President Obama famously put together a program that would help those with student loans, but even that was limited. He could only “forgive” loans from people who would make 10-20 years worth of monthly payments. In the end, the executive branch is highly limited in what it can do on this front.
A president has very limited abilities in deciding what to do (or not to do) with your Social Security taxes. They’re also limited in what kind of benefits they can give (or restrict) you when you’ve reached retirement age. Those kinds of things require, yet again, an act of Congress to carry out.
It goes both ways, however: if a Congress passes a bill that makes changes to Social Security, the president has the authority to veto or sign that bill into law. It’s all about checks and balances, which are proscribed in the Constitution… and sung about in “Schoolhouse Rock!”
Violate The Law
The president is not permitted to break the law. This seems like a given: no person should be considered “above the law” in the United States. But many have tried to argue — including former President Richard Nixon — that when a president performs an action, regardless of its legality, because of the pardon powers and a number of other rights the president has, a penumbra of protections prevents them from being prosecuted.
There are ways in which the president CAN be held accountable, however, including impeachment. It’s a difficult process — only two presidents have been impeached before, and none have been indicted (removed from office) as a result. But Nixon did resign from office before such proceedings could begin. It’s possible he could have been the first to be removed.
I might sound like a broken record at this point, but the president is restricted by what they can do regarding welfare programs. They cannot increase or decrease what benefits people can receive from these programs because, yet again, it takes an act of Congress to supply the president a bill that they can sign to do so.
There are some things a president can do when it comes to welfare programs. But these are generally already proscribed in the law, where it may state something along the lines of, “the president may” act in a certain way. In those instances, the president has some leeway. But creating or drastically altering a program is not in their purview of powers.
Government shutdowns seem to happen every few years or so on the regular. While it may seem like the president bears some responsibility on this issue, it’s actually not a decision they make personally — at least, in a direct way. The president and Congress have to come to an agreement to keep funds flowing to federal programs. When those agreements cannot be reached, that’s what causes a government shutdown to occur. The federal government simply cannot keep paying to operate without that bill being passed by Congress, and subsequently signed by the president.
While it might seem like some may place blame on the president for when a shutdown occurs, it’s not something they decide with the wave of a finger. It’s typically something that comes about when agreements cannot be reached.
There are certain things a president can do when it comes to trade policy on their own. But once again, these are powers that Congress has bestowed on the president that they can make because they’ve passed the law in that way. A president has the power to enforce tariffs, for example. But on a myriad other topics related to trade, the president cannot act unilaterally.
The president must have a congressional bill before them to sign in order to make significant changes to trade policy, in general. A negotiation can begin with the president or their administration, between them and a foreign country, but the policy must be approved by Congress in order to be enforced.
A declaration of war has only occurred in the United States a total of 11 times. The last time a formal declaration of war happened? Believe it or not, it was in World War II.
Congress may authorize the president to act in a way that’s similar to war, but only Congress may actually declare war on a foreign nation. The Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Persian Gulf War, and the War on Terror are examples in which the president was granted huge leeways to use military action. But none of those instances were actually legitimate acts of war.
Interfering With Elections
The president has tremendous powers, but they’re limited to the federal government. The president cannot, for instance, issue a decree that overturns an election in the state or local elections in which you live. Those offices are picked by you, the voter, and the president cannot interject themselves into those decisions unless they themselves are also a voter in that state.
A president also cannot upset the balance of power within the other branches of government. They cannot remove Supreme Court justices, and they cannot demand a member of Congress be expelled (although Congress itself has that power). The president is in charge of their branch of government, but not other branches, nor other governments within the U.S.
Affect Marriage Equality
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that there was a constitutional right to allow same-sex marriages to happen for gay and lesbian couples in the country. President Barack Obama supported the decision; President Donald Trump has been back-and-forth on the issue, but has expressed a desire in the past to end the practice.
It’s not an issue, however, that is up to him. Just like how he cannot perform acts that are strictly for Congress to perform, Trump cannot change an action that the Supreme Court has taken without a Constitutional amendment taking place. It’s one of those checks-and-balances things that prevent him from taking action on the issue.
Several states across the country presently allow for medicinal use or recreational use of marijuana. But most states adhere to federal rules, which make the drug illegal. The president can push for changes to these laws, but he cannot do it unilaterally — it requires the Drug Enforcement Administration, and probably some bills from Congress, to change drug definitions.
Many Americans want to see legalization come about within their lifetimes. But the president, on their own, cannot fulfill the wishes of the people in this way, though they may promote a campaign in Washington to bring about the end of its prohibition.