ORLANDO — When Barack and Michelle Obama left the White House, they both spoke longingly of a break from life in the public eye. But following a months-long vacation, they have started to tap into the lucrative paid-speaking circuit that has enriched so many other former presidents and first ladies — with the potential to quickly net millions of dollars.
On Thursday, both made their first appearances as speakers-for-hire.
“Hi, everybody, it’s good to get out of the house,” said Michelle Obama, visibly relaxed, as she sat for a wide-ranging — but free of partisan politics — question-and-answer session before the American Institute of Architecture’s annual conference. Her husband, meanwhile, joined historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in New York for a closed-door address to employees of the A&E cable network.
It was not divulged how much they were paid for these first appearances. But the former president will collect $400,000 for a September speech to a health-care conference sponsored by investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, Fox Business reported this week.
As newly minted high-dollar speakers, the Obamas follow a well-worn path from the White House — but one that poses risks to a personal and political brand rooted in their middle-class backgrounds.
Aides to the Obamas would not comment on how much they are charging for other private speaking engagements, but they defended the speaking schedule and pointed out that the president’s first public meeting was a conversation with college students in Chicago earlier this week.
“President Obama will deliver speeches from time to time. Some of those speeches will be paid, some will be unpaid, and regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision and his record,” his senior adviser, Eric Schultz, said in a statement issued after the Cantor Fitzgerald speech drew a wave of criticism — including a New York Post headline that dubbed Obama “Wall Street’s new fat cat.”
Schultz argued that Obama’s appearance at the health-care conference made sense: “As a president who successfully passed health insurance reform, it’s an issue of great importance to him.” As for a six-figure check signed by an investment bank, “I’d just point out that in 2008, Barack Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history — and still went on to successfully pass and implement the toughest reforms on Wall Street since FDR.”
Other former first couples have been challenged on their paid speeches, which began in earnest when former president Gerald R. Ford hit the lecture circuit: He needed to make a living somehow, he said. Former president Ronald Reagan was roundly criticized when he followed suit, taking heat for accepting $2 million for two speeches in Japan.
“He was seen as a gung-ho patriotic American, and then the first thing he does is go speak to another country that was, in a sense, an economic rival,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “They are entitled to make money, and nobody really bats an eyelash over the book deals they might get. But there’s something about speaking fees because it involves personal presence. As a former president, you’re still representing the country.”
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who was chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said that “as private citizens [the Obamas] are pretty much free to give speeches in their personal capacity,” but at a potential cost to their popularity and future political influence.
His old boss did it, too. According to Robert Draper’s book “Dead Certain,” Bush said the lecture circuit would “replenish the ol’ coffers.” He was reportedly paid between $100,000 and $175,000 for each appearance.
Bill and Hillary Clinton similarly came under heavy criticism for their private speeches, which earned them more than $25 million for delivering 104 speeches over 15 months, and became an issue in her presidential campaigns.
“It’s not a question of whether it’s legal,” Painter said. “It’s a question of whether someone in a political environment can make an argument that it was unethical.”
Though neither of the Obamas seem to want to run for political office in the future, their calculations are complicated by the tenuous state of the Democratic Party, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
“In a party that doesn’t really have especially captivating personalities right now, he remains a figurehead,” Zelizer said. “If he goes down the road of speaking for a lot of money, that has the potential to hurt the party.”
Obama seems to be attempting a balance between community-minded appearances and lucrative ones. His first paid event followed a public one Monday at the University of Chicago on civic engagement — typical, his spokesman said, of the topics he wants to discuss in the future.
“He wants to get together with young people and other community leaders who are front of mind to him and get ideas from them on how to create solutions for their communities and also partnering with other organizations that are making it a priority to bring resources to communities in need,” said his press secretary, Kevin Lewis.
Up next: a speech next month in Boston, where he will receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and trips to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy for the Global Food Innovation Summit.
As for Michelle Obama, she will speak next month at the Partnership for a Healthier America, which supported her White House anti-obesity initiatives, and join MTV for a “College Signing Day” encouraging high school students to pursue higher education.
Both Obamas are represented on the speaking circuit by the Harry Walker Agency, which also reps Richard B. Cheney, Al Gore and former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.
Strate said Michelle Obama’s first appearance seemed like a shrewd choice. Architecture “is not terribly controversial. It is something that has both a practical and an artistic element to it,” he said.
Onstage in Orlando, the former first lady said she chose the AIA gathering in part because of her early-career work in economic development for the city of Chicago.
“I got to know how important architects are in the lifeblood and beauty of any city, particularly a city like Chicago. . . . So [this] seemed like a good place to get started,” she said. “It’s like coming almost full circle for me.”
She spoke with authority about her experience as a lawyer and executive — topics she often seemed reluctant to address in her husband’s administration. She also seemed to be keeping up with the political news, making indirect comments, in a discussion of the challenges facing cities, that seemed to address President Trump’s proposal for overhauling the nation’s tax code.
“We have to invest,” she said, “which means we have to pay taxes.”
In another oblique reference, she shared a story about her emotional final day at the White House. Her daughters were in tears as they said goodbye to the staff, and she felt herself choke up, too — but she resolved to keep her emotions hidden before the Inauguration Day cameras.
“I didn’t want to have tears in my eyes because people would swear I was crying because of the new president,” she said, as the crowd laughed.