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.