When you leave what might be the most high-profile job in the world, your retirement will be anything but ordinary. Former U.S. presidents have taken many different paths upon wrapping up their time in office, but there are certain rules, practices and procedures in place that all the recent ex-commanders in chief have followed upon their exit.
As you can imagine, it’s not quite as simple as going back to an average life. Here are some fascinating facts about what former presidents aren’t allowed to do — and some of the perks that go along with that particular retirement plan.
The Former Presidents Act
Before the Former Presidents Act was passed by Congress in 1958, America’s ex-presidents were largely on their own when they got out of office. George Washington enjoyed a lucrative career distilling whiskey at his Mount Vernon estate, Williams Howard Taft was appointed to the Supreme Court and Theodore Roosevelt turned to nonfiction writing, just to name a few.
But the sailing wasn’t always smooth for the nation’s most powerful politicians after they left the White House. Harry Truman was nearly broke after leaving office, living on his modest military pension from his service during World War I, partly as a result of his desire not to “commercialize” his former office by cashing in on the many job offers he was given. The Former Presidents Act was passed partly as a result of Truman’s financial struggles.
Perk: A Guaranteed Income
As a result of that law, which the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower helped champion, former commanders in chief were given a lifetime pension of $25,000 a year, which equals about $225,000 today when adjusted for inflation. The pension is equal to the salary of an Executive Level I employee, which was $219,200 as of fiscal year 2020.
Even former presidents who resigned from office, such as Richard Nixon, are eligible for the pension. Those who are removed from office via impeachment are not eligible for the fund, which is covered by taxpayers.
Perk: Permanent Secret Service Protection
Even if someone isn’t president anymore, they can still be a high-profile target for attackers. One of the most important perks provided by the Former Presidents Act is lifelong protection by the Secret Service. In addition to covering the ex-president and their spouse, the protective detail also extends to their children until age 16. This perk is available completely at the discretion of the former presidents themselves, as Richard Nixon dismissed his Secret Service protection about 11 years after he left office.
Rule: No Driving On Public Roads
If you love driving on the open road, you should probably never even consider running for president. While in office, the commander in chief rides in a motorcade and in heavily armored vehicles any time they are on public roads, but the restrictions continue even into retirement. Former presidents — and even vice presidents — who make use of their permanent Secret Service detail are not allowed to drive on public roads and instead rely on Secret Service agents who are trained in evasive driving maneuvers.
In 2017, George W. Bush revealed that he hadn’t driven on a public road in nearly 25 years.
Perk: Daily Security Briefings
When you are the president of the United States, you have access to the confidential information gathered by the nation’s intelligence services. As a courtesy, former commanders in chief are still given access to daily security briefings when they leave office — under one condition. Whether or not a former president will be allowed to receive the briefings, which include confidential information about situations both domestic and foreign, is completely up to the sitting president.
Rule: Allow Everyone To Read Your Old Communications
This pesky rule is part of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Every piece of official communication that comes from the president during their time in office must be kept, archived and made available to the public five years after their administration ends. Since 2014, this law has included all electronic communications related to official business as well, which is why private email accounts are a no-no for presidents when they are discussing business.
Rule: Pay Your Dues If You Want Government Health Insurance
Believe it or not, former presidents don’t automatically qualify for lifetime government health insurance. That benefit is only afforded to those who have spent at least five years as a federal employee. This means that one-term presidents who had no other experience in the federal government will be paying for their own healthcare once they leave office. This has been the case for Jimmy Carter and will also be the case for Donald Trump.
Rule: No Going Anywhere Alone
In case you hadn’t noticed, privacy is a thing of the past for both current and former presidents. Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent told NBC News that having a Secret Service detail is “the most intrusive thing that anyone could ever experience.” To put it into context, Wackrow said to imagine you’re “at your home tonight and four strangers just show up and they’re standing around in your kitchen.”
As we mentioned before, an ex-president can refuse his lifelong security detail and therefore earn back some privacy, but there would be considerable risk.
Rule: Don’t Run For President Again
Given how difficult the job is, it’s unlikely that any former president would want to run for the office again but, in case they did, there’s a constitutional amendment against it. After then-President Franklin Roosevelt won the election in 1940 for an unprecedented third term in office — followed by his win for a fourth term in 1944 — the 22nd Amendment was ratified to keep any president from serving more than two terms.
This rule obviously doesn’t apply to presidents who serve only one term, meaning Donald Trump could run again in 2024 if he wishes.
Rule: Don’t Run For Vice President
When Joe Biden earned the nomination from the Democratic party in the 2020 election, there were rumblings that he could pick Barack Obama as his running mate — but that would’ve violated the 22nd Amendment. Given that the vice president is first in the line of succession should something happen to the president, it makes sense that former two-term commanders in chief should be barred from that position. Spending two terms as vice president before two terms as president is the closest to 16 years in the Oval Office anyone will get today.
Rule: Don’t Go Phone Shopping
Unlike sitting presidents, former presidents don’t have to worry about every phone conversation they have being recorded for public consumption, but they still have to follow some rules regarding their communications. The Secret Service has to approve all electronic communications devices used by presidents and former presidents, including their phones. So if a former commander in chief wants the newest iPhone, they have to run it by their security personnel first.
Rule: Don’t Expect Special Legal Privileges
When a president is in office, they hold the unique power to pardon anyone serving time for a federal offense. That could potentially include the presidents themselves if they were to be charged with a federal crime while holding the job. Once their time in the White House is finished, however, they are limited to the same legal rights as any private citizen. Unless they have a great friend in the the Oval Office — like Richard Nixon did in Gerald Ford — they likely can’t count on a pardon being granted for any wrongdoing.
Rule: Staying At The Presidential Townhouse
While this is not a hard rule, former presidents are heavily encouraged to stay at a specific property when they happen to be back in Washington. The Presidential Townhouse is located at 716 Jackson Place, which is approximately a 2-minute walk from the White House. This four-story townhouse was bought by the government in the 1950s and became a landing place for ex-presidents in 1969 under Richard Nixon. One of the reasons it’s an ideal place for former commanders in chief is that it has dedicated rooms in the basement to accommodate a Secret Service detail.
Perk: A Lengthy Retirement
Former presidents are living a lot longer after they leave office these days than they did in the past. The overall average retirement span for ex-presidents from the time they leave the White House until their death is only about 13 years, but that has increased significantly to 22.5 years for everyone since Richard Nixon. For comparison, the average length of retirement for other Americans is about 18 years.
Jimmy Carter has had the longest post-presidency life span in history, coming up on 40 years in 2021, while James K. Polk had the shortest retirement period, living for just 103 days after his presidency ended in 1849.
Rule: Keep A Staff, But Keep It Small
While former presidents are allotted some money for a staff every year, they’d better keep that team small unless they want to pay them out of pocket. When they are in office, presidents are used to having a staff of around 400 people and a budget of around $40 million to pay them all. When they leave office, they are only given $96,000 a year from taxpayers to fund a staff.
When Barack Obama was interviewed by Britain’s Prince Harry on the BBC in 2018, he said the “camaraderie” of his White House team was something he missed about the job.
Rule: Represent The US Abroad
As far as soft rules that former heads of state are supposed to follow, being a lifelong goodwill ambassador is a pretty good one. In America, former commanders in chief are expected to travel the world, representing the U.S. in positive ways abroad, and they are given a healthy budget to do so. Every year, ex-presidents are allotted $1 million of taxpayer-funded cash specifically for travel, while their spouses are allotted $500,000 for the same purpose.
To make international travel a breeze, all former presidents have diplomatic passports, which means they don’t pay fees and can avoid much of the red tape that accompanies a normal passport.
Rule: Don’t Share State Secrets
Ex-presidents represent a potentially dangerous challenge for American intelligence services. By the nature of the job, they have a wealth of valuable information in their heads, which makes them a target for opposing governments to exploit or attempt to pay off in return for what they know.
When a president is in office, they have the ability to declassify and share any government information they wish, without penalty. However, when they become an ex-president, it is illegal for them to share classified information that they themselves didn’t declassify while in office.
Perk: Serious Earning Potential
While presidents earn a $400,000 salary while doing that difficult job, they have the chance to make a lot more money once they leave the Oval Office. In the first four years after he left office, George W. Bush made an estimated $15 million from speeches alone, while he also commanded at least $7 million from his memoir, according to CNN. Bill Clinton earned a $15 million advance for his memoir and raked in more than $75 million from speeches between 2001 and 2012.
“I’ve never had any money until I got out of the White House,” Clinton said in 2010. “But I’ve done reasonably well since then.”
Rule: Stay Mum On Your Successors
While not an official rule, this is one of those time-honored traditions that most former presidents have followed. Not openly criticizing your successors in office, or keeping your public opinions measured, has long been regarded as an act of decorum among former commanders in chief. However, plenty of former presidents have openly ripped a subsequent president over the years, mostly on matters of policy. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Theodore Roosevelt all took shots at later presidents on the record.
Rule: Don’t Expect Any Private Mail
Similar to approving a former president’s communications devices, the Secret Service is also tasked with monitoring their mail. This is obviously done for security reasons, but it means that any notion of private correspondence by traditional mail is a farce. The agency checks every piece of mail that an ex-president receives at a facility that’s off-site from their home for maximum safety. This means that it would be pretty tough to surprise your favorite agent with a birthday gift you bought online.
Rule: No More Avoiding Traffic
The presidential motorcade is a staple of occupying the Oval Office and it means you never have to sit at a red light. That all ends when you’re out of the White House, however, meaning you have to get used to sitting in traffic again. In 2018, Barack Obama said this was one of the biggest changes he had to get used to when his administration ended.
“I didn’t used to experience traffic,” the former commander in chief said. “I used to cause traffic, much to the consternation of any place I was visiting.”
Perk: A New Office
While it might not be an oval-shaped one, all former presidents are given the means to run a new office, thanks to the Former Presidents Act. The law covers the rent for each ex-president’s office, which can be located anywhere in the United States. It also provides money for staffing, equipment and office supplies.
As of fiscal year 2018, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had the most expensive offices of any living ex-presidents, with each billing more than $440,000 for their leases alone. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter’s $112,000 office rent seems downright spartan by comparison.
Rule: Establish A Presidential Library
Another way ex-presidents are tasked with keeping their official records in public view is through the presidential library system. This method of archiving the communications related to the nation’s most powerful office was created by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, several years after he’d worked to pass the National Archives Act in 1934. Since then, every former commander in chief has established their own presidential library.
It’s a bit of official business that’s as much about bookkeeping as it is about celebrating their legacy.
Perk: Some Stability For Their Spouse
The Former Presidents Act doesn’t only cover the politicians who held that job but also their spouses. In the event that the ex-president dies before their spouse, the spouse is eligible for an annual pension of $20,000, which is also covered by taxpayers. The spouse is only eligible for that modest pension if they relinquish any other pensions or annuities they might hold. As a result of that rule, neither Nancy Reagan nor Betty Ford accepted their annual payments after their husbands died.
Perk: A Slower Pace
While there are still plenty of things they can’t easily do, former presidents enjoy a lot more personal freedom as soon as they leave office. They are able to once again go to movie theaters, eat at restaurants and take commercial flights, for example. After he left office, Barack Obama said he enjoyed simply being able to make his own decisions about how to spend each day.
“It’s wonderful to be able to control your day in a way that you just can’t as president,” he said in 2018.
Perk: A State Funeral
While it’s not a perk they will be able to enjoy, exactly, everyone who has ever been president or president-elect is entitled to a state funeral when they die, as was the case for former President George H.W. Bush. These memorial services are often global events of mourning that are filled with elaborate ceremony and shows of reverence. The U.S. military has a 138-page planning document for presidential funerals that has rules on the maximum driving speed of the procession, the footsteps of the guard and the floral arrangements, just to name a few.