In collecting $400,000 from a Wall Street investment firm to make a single speech, Barack Obama is following in the Gucci-clad footsteps of past presidents. Ronald Reagan landed a $2 million speaking gig in Japan. George W. Bush, on his way out, announced it was time to “replenish the ol’ coffers.” Bill and Hillary Clinton reported making more than $235 million after leaving the White House.
But to acknowledge that Obama has plenty of precedent on his side is not to say that his choice is wise. Indeed, it’s unfortunate.
Obama’s propulsion onto the lecture circuit arrives at a moment of populist disgust with Wall Street greed and the Washington swamp (can doors revolve in swamps?). It comes after a campaign in which Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speaking fees became a symbol of entitled elitism. So imagine the powerful message Obama would have sent — the reverse precedent — had he chosen to renounce this road to riches.
Or, imagine this, had he chosen to speak publicly, at as many places and on as many topics as he liked. Just not behind closed doors, for an amount equivalent to his White House salary — and seven times what the typical household makes in a year. Such a move would have been understood as an implicit — and well-deserved — rebuke of the Clintons’ compulsive speechifying.
This is not to argue for a post-presidential vow of poverty. I don’t begrudge the Obamas their reported $60-million-plus joint book deal, of which their publisher has said a “significant portion” will be donated to charity. That should leave plenty for the Obamas to live as luxuriously as they could want.
Books are a consumer good, easily available for purchase. If the market bears $60 million to hear from the Obamas, great. Okay, I hear you saying, the market commands $400,000 for a Barack Obama speech. But the speech — this particular one for a health-care conference put on by investment banking firm Cantor Fitzgerald — is only available to a privileged few, paid for by an even more privileged few. To this crowd, $400,000 is a paltry bonus in a bad year for a middling analyst.
Indeed, some of those to Obama’s left have focused on the Wall Street aspect of the deal. “I think it just speaks to the power of Wall Street and the influence of big money in the political process,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Bloomberg News’s Steven Dennis. “I think it’s unfortunate.” Similarly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on SiriusXM’s Radio Andy that she was “troubled” by the speech.
The Wall Street angle feels like unfortunate icing on an already distasteful cake. Would we really feel better if Obama were taking the money from, say, a public university? At least the Cantor Fitzgerald check comes from folks who can easily afford it — not out of taxpayer dollars.
More fundamentally, what is really revolting about all this unseemly money-grubbing isn’t who’s writing the checks, it’s the unnecessary vacuuming of endless sums. Sure, Clinton’s conduct was infuriatingly boneheaded because she knew she might be — at a certain point, she knew she was — running for president. The fact that she was seeking office opened her to suggestion that those signing her speaker’s checks were currying future favor.
Obama, by contrast, is done with electoral politics, at least the kind that have him on the ballot. His office said a portion of his income will go to charity. But is this rapaciousness really the image he wants to cultivate — for himself or for fellow Democrats? Having left his party in such terrible condition, does he really have to offer opponents ammunition to attack him as hypocritical?
Some readers will argue there is an unfair racial double standard in accepting that previous presidents have cashed in big time and demanding that Obama refrain from doing precisely what they have. “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards?” Trevor Noah asked on “The Daily Show” Thursday. “No, no, no, no, no, my friend. He can’t be the first of everything.”
Hogwash. This isn’t about holding the black guy to a higher standard — it’s about trying to hold everyone to a higher standard. Times have changed, and what was once placidly accepted as post-presidential business-as-usual may no longer be.
A wise man once said, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” That was Obama 2010, on regulating Wall Street. Maybe Obama 2017 could talk to that guy.