Ethics Q & A On Obama’s Speaking Fees

Former President Barack Obama received a $400,000 speaking fee for an appearance at an A&E Network event  yesterday, just as controversy was building over Obama accepting the same fee to appear at a Wall Street firm’s conference.

What’s going on here?

The ex-President is cashing in, that’s what’s going on here. This has become standard operating procedure for former POTUSes, beginning with Gerald Ford, who was showered with criticism by Democrats and the news media for signing with the William Morris agency and picking up what was at the time considered obscene speaking fees from corporations and foreign governments. Ford’s fees are dwarfed by Obama’s, but then Barack is a much better speaker than the late President Ford was. (Almost anyone is.)

Jimmy Carter showed admirable restraint by not devoting his post-Presidency to enriching himself off of his years in office, but Ronald Reagan took some mega-fees to speak abroad. The Clintons, as we know too well, instantly went from rags to riches by selling their celebrity, an exercise that was especially dubious because Hillary was on the rise. Obama’s speaking fees are just one more step along the cashing-in path that both he and Michelle had already begun traveling with the astounding 65 million dollar deal the couple signed to write their biographies.

Some questions and answers on the ethics of Obama’s payday:

1.  Is Obama ‘s acceptance of all this money ethical?

In a vacuum, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t. He set a fee, and someone is willing to pay it. Hillary’s fee was $250,000; if she can get that much for her dry-as-toast delivery as a former Senator, Secretary of State and First Lady, Obama’s a bargain at $400,000. As a private citizen, he has the same right any of us do to sell his books and speeches at whatever the market will bear.

I, for example, get $37.56 for an hour long speech, and am glad to get it..

2. But it isn’t in a vacuum, right?

Right. Obama still has power and influence; he still promises to be a voice in the Democratic party. He’s not exactly a private citizen, and no ex-President is. Taking such a large payment from a Wall Street firm, after all of Obama’s rhetoric (and that of Bernie Sanders, the non-Democrat now being paraded as a leader of the Democratic party) condemning Wall Street has the decided whiff of hypocrisy about it. Not only, that, but as with Hillary Clinton and Bill, the payment of such jaw-dropping amounts for minimal service natural raises questions of pay-offs. Obama’s administration famously sought no criminal sanctions for Wall Street executives despite their  role in what Obama called “driving the economy into a ditch.” How do we know this wasn’t part of an installment payment to Obama for services already rendered, a quid pro quo? We don’t.

It is also hard to make sense out of those fees if they aren’t paying for something more than an hour long speech.

3. So these fees create “the appearance of impropriety?”

Sure they do. They may also constitute actual impropriety, like the Clinton’s fees. Obama, unlike Reagan, is young. Michelle may yet seek a political career. Are these corporations buying future allies in high places? We don’t know. Conflict of interest principles would dictate that anyone who receives paychecks like those from Wall Street firms should recuse themselves  from any future policy role that affects Wall Street.

4. What would be the ideal ethical conduct for past Presidents?

The ideal ethical conduct for past Presidents would be to avoid cashing in. Before Ford, none did….of course, until relatively recently ex-Presidents seldom lived long enough to cash in.  The POTUS currently gets a $203,700 pension, which means that no ex- will have to write his memoirs while he’s dying of cancer to pay off old debts, like Ulysses Grant did. I remember that Ronald Reagan was asked if he would consider returning to movie acting for the right role, and he said that while he would love to, it would be unseemly. After he retired, Reagan got several offers to play small movie roles for huge sums of money, and rejected them all as a matter of principle.

5. But isn’t this The Ick Factor rather than ethics?

No, it’s both. It is both because seeing an ex- President parlay what is supposed to be patriotic and selfless national service into a personal fortune increases public cynicism and distrust. Here is hard left Salon’s Rebecca Johnson expressing her disillusionment:

I don’t think Barack Obama chose politics for the big paycheck at the end of the road….We adore him for the grace, intelligence and restraint he showed as a leader. [ Ugh. Hold your tongue, Jack…] Why squander that moral gravitas by becoming yet another gazillionaire in a world where extreme income inequality is already threatening the social order?…In the last election, Hillary Clinton rang all the traditional Democratic bells about helping the struggling middle class, but it was hard to reconcile her rhetoric with the speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs the year before she ran for office. Bernie Sanders was like a dog with that bone but, frankly, those fees ($675,000) are chump change compared with $65,000,000….Optics on wealth matter. When celebrities who protest global warming fly on private jets, it matters. When John Edwards was first running for president, I remember thinking, Well, maybe? Then I read that he lived in a 20,000-square-foot house and, I thought, Forget it. Only an asshole wants to live in a house that big (and look how right I was about that)….When Hillary Clinton was asked why she took all that money from Goldman Sachs, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “It’s what they offered.” It didn’t mean she had to take it.

6.  Isn’t that just boilerplate Democrat working class-warrior blather?

It is—but a lot of progressives sincerely believe that blather, which is that money and wealth are inherently  forces for evil, and to be wealthy or to seek wealth means that one is untrustworthy. Obama’s party embraces that idea—it endorsed Occupy Wall Street, remember—sells it, wins votes off of it, and for a Democratic President to immediately cash in from Wall Street raises a rebuttable presumption that all the anti- capitalism rhetoric was a lie. Senator Elizabeth Warren reacted to Obama’s speaking fees with this…

“I was troubled by that. One of the things I talk about in the book [ “This Fight is Our Fight”]  is the influence of money — I describe it as a snake that slithers through Washington. The influence of dollars on this place s what scares me. I feel like it ultimately threatens democracy.”

Translation: “Money BAD.” Absent actual exposition about how and why “Money BAD,” Warren’s statement is a shockingly inarticulate expression of pure bias. Why were you troubled by Obama’s fees, Senator? Is it capitalism you object to? Anyone accepting money from Wall Street? People getting rich?  is it greed? Are you insinuating that Obama’s policies as President were influenced by money? How? Whose money?

And wait, Senator, if money is bad, how did you manage to be worth at least 4 million dollars, not counting your $2.5 million dollar home? That’s a lot for a poor Cherokee girl who has been working in academia for three decades.

7. Does Obama have an argument that he shouldn’t be held to a different standard than his white predecessors?

He has that argument, expressed by Marcus Johnson this way, as he writes

In late 2016, nearly 9 out of 10 Black voters approved of President Obama. To many Black voters, he is the symbol of success for Black America. You might not agree with everything he has done, and I certainly haven’t agreed with everything, but you have to respect him for what he means to Black Americans — making it to the height of American politics and withstanding eight years of racist attacks. Sanders and his movement see Obama as symbolic of evil neoliberal corporate interests. Therein lies the disconnect. The far right holds disdain for Obama for some of the same reasons that the far left does: They see him as beholden to special interests instead of “those of the people.”

Black people can see this, they aren’t stupid. They see that the political fringe on the left and most of the right hates Obama for some of the same reasons. So when the far left comes out and says that the first Black President should be held to a different standard than Presidents before him — that he doesn’t deserve to get paid for his post-Presidential work or shouldn’t be compensated — the Black community feels that one of its largest symbols of success is under attack from an overwhelmingly white political movement….Do you see how Black people see this? How we look at this and say “They don’t want Black people to succeed or to be represented in politics, business, or media? They don’t want Black people to make money?”

This is, however, just an “Everybody does it” rationalization, with a racial twist: “Whites do it, so blacks can do it too.”

8. Is there another way to look at Obama’s cashing in?

On Medium, Matt Stoler  has a fascinating analysis. Read the whole thing here, but this is a sample:

For virtually his whole Presidency, President Obama operated according to a Hamiltonian worldview in which social justice and concentrated capital went hand-in-hand, where technocracy was seen as superior to democracy. It is that same moral vision that animated Obama in accepting nearly half a million dollars in speaking fee money. Obama was the damn President — he’s a smart guy, and yeah, this is who he should be spending time with and naturally this transfer of wealth is a just reward for him to live the lifestyle to which the virtuous class is entitled.

The endorsement of this worldview by Obama, and the disappointment it provoked in his supporters, is useful. It strips away the polish and PR sheen of the last eight years. Democrats are now uncomfortable, not with Trump, but with themselves. And they need to be, or they won’t learn to love democracy. Taking this money makes it clear what Obama believes, and what Democrats bought into when they invested so heavily into his administration and its policies. It draws a consistent line from the unsatisfying policy framework of Obama’s administration to what actually animated it. Not 13 dimensional chess, not GOP obstruction, but a philosophy that Democrats find distasteful on its own merits.

Obama’s good society was one in which a few actors in this class organize our culture using their power over our lives and liberties, because their virtue has enabled them to have the capital or credentials to do so. It’s why his policy agenda on the challenges of today’s political economy was education, early childhood education, and a higher minimum wage, rather than any means to liberate us from the concentrated financiers that organize our markets and our communities. They are doing this for our own good, for one day, maybe not you or me, but perhaps our children might be able to scratch and claw into this rarefied class. If, of course, they have the virtue and intelligence to do so.

20 thoughts on “Ethics Q & A On Obama’s Speaking Fees

  1. …Hillary Clinton and Bill, the payment of such jaw-dropping amounts for minimal service natural raises questions of pay-offs…

    Ya think? This issue alone was enough to vote for ‘Sparky the Rope Climbing Dog’ instead of Hillary. The Clinton Foundation was the elephant in the room that the MSM would not discuss during the election, and no one made her address the gap between her political stances and her actions.

    Today I saw the MSM questioning if Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s charitable foundation was ethical. The sheer gall of the statement is astounding. I don’t know about Ivanka’s situation, but turning a blind eye to the Clinton Crime Family Foundation while jumping on this before it even happens is of signature significance.

  2. I had this discussion earlier with someone, I think it might have been Chris, on Twitter… I don’t have nearly as big a problem with Obama taking money after he leaves office as I do Hillary taking money before, and during, her campaign. Obama is, in many important ways, much diminished in political power, and so when he accepts money to speak, I have more faith that that’s actually what’s happening than I do when Hillary takes three quarters of a million dollars from Sachs, for instance.

    But progressives, and if Chris is in this group he isn’t alone, seem to be trying very hard to explain away Hillary’s quid pros… I compared it to Trump’s business interests and “That’s different”. Although I don’t think a meaningful distinction can be articulated. And now this… I’m really not sure what to think. I used to think that the republicans were disorganised and tribally fractured, but it’s like they’re holding the beer right now while the Democrats show off.

    • The meaningful distinction I articulated was that business ties represent ongoing relationships, while speaking fees do not.

      Now, if exorbitant speaking fees really do come with a quid pro quo, then that would of course constitute an ongoing relationship. But I’d need more evidence that that’s happening other than just a price tag.

      I have no idea how one would calculate the value of an Obama or Hillary Clinton or even a Trump speech. You’re not just paying for their words, you’re paying for their time. You’re also paying for what will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some members of your audience. Not everyone gets to see a former president (or former first lady/secretary of state) in person. suspect having such speakers at a place of business or other organization is also something an organization would boast about, so there’s that to factor in as well. These fees seem outrageous to us, and maybe they are, but that doesn’t necessarily create an appearance of impropriety in my mind.

      And yes, I think the same of conservative politicians who charge similar amounts. I generally do not care about how much a politician charges to give a speech. They are outrageously busy people; I would probably charge a lot too.

      • And you called me naive.

        “But I’d need more evidence that that’s happening other than just a price tag.”

        You want some evidence? How about how the moment everyone realized that Hillary had lost the election, which was the night of the election, because everyone had assumed up and to the election that she would win, contributions to the Clinton foundation and invitations for members of the Clinton family to speak fractionalised? Whether you think there was quid pro quo is irrelevant, the donors did.

        “And yes, I think the same of conservative politicians who charge similar amounts. I generally do not care about how much a politician charges to give a speech. They are outrageously busy people; I would probably charge a lot too.”

        Such virtue. We’ve found one of the few values that you apply evenly to both sides… A pity it’s an acceptance of corruption. One of the reasons, if not the reason, that sitting senate and house members cannot collect money for speeches is because it’s generally understood that money will bias politicians, and we don’t want our politicians openly for sale. Even if that wasn’t explicitly the case, there is no way to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and professionals, not just politicians, but everyone with even a modicum of self respect, should aspire to minimize situations where those appearances could occur.

  3. I was on a case in the late 1990’s or maybe 2000 where we hired Elizabeth Warren to be an expert witness. She was not cheap. That may help answer your question, which I am sure was rhetorical in any event.

  4. A witness to the power of love of money over-riding all other concerns, even the exposure of one’s hypocrisy and the defamation of one’s own character, and revealing the true nature of one’s self.

  5. So, how’s the Clinton Foundation going these days? The Clinton Global Initiative? They were being pretty well fueled the last 2 years, can we get an update? I mean, this whole thing will probably be around for decades to come based on the money that’s been “donated”, right?

  6. Jack,

    “I, for example, get $37.56 for an hour long speech, and am glad to get it.”

    Pardon my ignorance of how one makes a living a speaking engagements, but that seems almost unworkable as income — it’s about what I made in a day of working minimum wage. Do you give multiple speeches a day? Does that include other expenses? Do they supplement the fee with Disney Dollars?

    I say none of this to belittle you or the hard work you put in, but the economics of it confused me.

    Either way, great article and best of luck to you!

  7. Obama reminds more than a little of Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” and the line “Greed is good.” He’s definitely not going for chump change and I really don’t think he cares much about an “appearance of impropriety” and other lofty concepts.

  8. Silly me, but I thought the community organizer in chief was supposed to be well above grubbing for filthy lucre. Guess I was wrong. He’s going to be in a really high tax bracket. He might want to get in touch with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on any Trump attempt to reduce marginal rates. Oh, I forgot, he doesn’t talk to legislators.

  9. Every one of these Leftists politicians (Bernie included) loves the high life, loves to rub elbows with the rich and famous, and loves to receive and spend exorbitant amounts of money. None of them actually believes their own Disney movie platitudes about the evils of wealth. It’s just something they say that the rubes happy and keeps them in power. And there’s always someone even richer than they are for them to wag a finger at.

    • What ever happened to the old term “limousine liberal?” You never hear it anymore. Maybe it’s considered self-evident and no longer needed? Maybe it should be updated to Gulfstream 500 liberal?”

      • I’ve always been fond of “Celebrity-in-Chief” myself. It began with President Obama appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

        I know I’m not the only person to think of it and probably not the first, but I also didn’t steal the phrase from anyone else.


  10. Sixty million bucks for two books? How does that pencil out for the publisher? Maybe it does. $30 a piece, Two million copies, (plus printing and advertising and distribution costs) for break even? Hmmm. Maybe there are that many people willing to buy these books at full retail. I’m just a little mystified. Or stunned.

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