Home National Politics Obama and the Big Wall Street Speaking Fees

Obama and the Big Wall Street Speaking Fees


The current issue of THE WEEK magazine arrived this past weekend, and the cover gave me no pleasure.

That cover depicted a caricature of former President Barack Obama with money in his hands, and other dollars floating around in the air around him, with a “Wall Street” sign behind him. The headline with the illustration reads, “Et tu, Obama,” and the subcaption says, “The former president decides to cash in on Wall Street speeches.”

This cover is not the only expression of disappointment to be heard concerning former President Obama’s arrangement to get paid $400,000 to speak to a Wall Street group.

Representative of such criticism is this from Bernie Sanders:

“Look, Barack Obama is a friend of mine, and I think he and his family represented us for eight years with dignity and intelligence,” Sanders said. “But I think at a time when we have so much income and wealth inequality … I think it just does not look good.”

Elizabeth Warren expressed similar misgivings.

A spokesperson person for Obama, Eric Schultz, dismisses such criticism, saying:

“As we announced months ago, 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.”

Surely, when we have a new president who is aggressively milking his own private profits out of the power of the presidency itself — as Donald Trump (and his family) are now so blatantly doing — any misstep of this sort by Obama in his post-presidential life is small change.

Nonetheless, the criticism of Obama cannot be so readily dismissed as Schultz tries to do.

When allies of the president publicly express their disappointment, it should be clear that going down this road threatens to diminish the political capital and moral stature that he still possesses because of his having headed so ethical an administration, so free of scandal, so consistently decent. (A president who, as Lowell says in this morning’s news summary, has displayed “brilliance, eloquence, erudition, humor, grace, class, wisdom, integrity, honesty, and many other great qualities.”)

Fortunately, there is another course open to Obama besides this path of selling his status on the speakers’ circuit or turning down all the money his status and stature can command.

That alternative course is to have the money paid to a good cause of his choice.

Here are the two crucial realities that should govern Obama’s conduct: 1) Obama is still an important political actor in the United States at a very troubled time; 2) Obama has no need for greater riches to live well for the rest of his life, and to provide well for his heirs.

Even if he and Michelle did not have a book deal worth a reported $65 million, as a former president, he is guaranteed more than $200,000 a year for life. No financial worries there.

It has been reported that the Obamas plan to donate a considerable portion of their book proceeds to charity. And also, as an unmistakable sign of the Obamas’ continuing concern for the public good, they have reportedly donated $2 million dollars to a summer jobs program in Chicago.

So why didn’t they realize that it could be even more important — in terms of the “optics” of the situation — to do the same with the Big Bucks Wall Street will pay for a few hours work? In the context of our times, those “optics” were predictable, and earmarking that money as pro bono funds would have been the wise move.

There’s no need for Obama to turn down payment. Not when he has a chance act the part of Robin Hood (without the theft):  to take from the likes of Goldman Sachs and transfer those financial resources to some cause chosen not only to do good, but also to make an important political point. Like to give the money to Planned Parenthood, or an immigrant relief program, or Bill McKibben’s climate organization 350.org, or the ACLU, or an organization to help journalists imprisoned around the world.

Or whatever political point Obama might want to make, in that indirect fashion.

But perhaps the most important political point to make, at this time of Trump and the Republican hegemony, is that greed is not good.

When the President is so full of greed that he transgresses against all the political norms about divestment, as well as violating the emoluments clause; and when the Republican Party is willing to pass a so-called  “health-care” bill that sacrifices the comfort, security and even lives of average Americans in order to give still more money to the most fabulously wealthy; it is a good time for someone like Obama to display a starkly contrasting set of values.

By giving all that money away, visibly, he can show that there’s such a thing as “enough,” which a person who is healthy — psychologically, morally, spiritually — is satisfied with and grateful for. And he can show that there are values a great deal more important than wealth.

It seems clear that Obama’s heart is in the right place, at least mostly. His having exposed himself to the kind of (predictable) treatment he has received about this Wall Street gig — e.g. on the cover of THE WEEK — seems to have been a matter of not proceeding with the usual Obama carefulness.


  • Andy Schmookler

    It’s never a great sign when a piece, when it appears on Daily Kos, proves more effective at eliciting comments than recommendations. But that’s what this one has done. I just posted a reply to a variety of the comments, saying:

    1) Whether or not any decisions Obama made about these speeches
    SHOULD lead to such criticism, the fact is that they did. And I would
    further assert that — given all the grief that Hillary took for her
    speaking fees, whether that was warranted or not, either — this result
    should have been anticipated.

    2) It is suggested above that Obama shouldn’t care about any of that,
    but clearly he does still intend to play some politically relevant
    role. (And I’m glad he will.) Which means that protecting his image is
    an important part of maximizing his ability to influence things in this
    country in a direction he believes in.

    3) Given the history of this country over the past decade, regarding
    Wall Street and politics, and including the criticism Obama faced of
    dealing too leniently with the Wall Street types who created the great
    crash of 2008-9, it should be clear that big speaking fees from Wall
    Street have more problematic “optics” than a big advance from a major
    publisher. The $2 million donation the Obama’s have made COULD have been
    made using all the Wall Street money.

    From all of which it follows: Obama should have dealt with this
    differently — and should have known to deal with this differently — for
    reasons having to do with maximizing something that he clearly cares
    about: his ability to influence our politics in a very worrisome time.

    This will not be a huge deal, in determining his image and hence his
    influence. Nor do I regard this piece to be a big deal. But it should be
    clear that he erred, and it is worth thinking clearly about how and why
    that is.

    • Yeah, I’m not surprised at all that you didn’t get a positive reaction to this; honestly, I didn’t agree with it either. I DO agree with the following comments on your Daily Kos cross-post:

      “I am tired of this pseudo-crisis. ”

      “So it’s OK for Republicans to make as much money as they want, but not Democrats? That’s a great way to recruit talent to our side. ”

      ” the people who care more about their optics than his family and community could fork over the $800 million. Otherwise, he should continue to dismiss their couch fainting. ”

      ” what’s wrong with an African American joining the elite of speakers? They’re going to pay somebody $400,000 anyway. and the Obamas are a damn sight more likely to do some good with the money that just about anyone else.”

      • Andy Schmookler

        I agree with all that, too, Lowell. But the reality is what the reality is, and it is better to make good decisions in view of that reality than not-so-good ones. (Realities like the way Republicans get a pass, or whites get a pass, or whatever.)

        What would have been the harm of taking the $400,000 (or $800,000 for two speeches, I gather), and publicly declaring that the Wall Street money will be used for summer jobs for Chicago youth, and then throw in some of the publishers’ advance as well?

        Same outcome, with good publicity instead of bad publicity.

        When you see a magazine like THE WEEK — which in general has some good journalistic virtues — come up with an unwelcome cover like this week’s, it pays to think about how this might have been avoided.

        You can call is a “pseudo-crisis,” and of course that story never should have warranted such cover treatment. But even pseudo things like this can have real effects.

        • “What would have been the harm of taking the $400,000…”

          No harm, but: 1) Barack Obama is absolutely capable of figuring out the best use of whatever money he makes; 2) again, this a “pseudo-crisis” and, I’d add, completely non-issue.

          • Andy Schmookler

            When you call this a complete “non-issue,” are you saying just that you think it absurd that people would make a fuss over it?

            It may be absurd, I don’t disagree. But it is what happened.

            The reality is he got bad press. Is that not true?

            It was predictable bad press. Do you think it could not have been anticipated?

            Bad press is worth avoiding, if possible. Wouldn’t you agree?

            It was avoidable without his changing how much money he could pocket and how much money he would donate from his various sources of income.

            If there’s a cost-free way to avoid bad press, is it not worth doing?

  • Quizzical

    The way that having or acquiring great wealth affects a person’s character depends on each individual, as far as I can tell. In Obama’s case, he has handled fame and fortune very well so far. Even if he asked me for my opinion, I wouldn’t presume to advise him not to earn a fortune in speaking fees because it would damage his reputation, given his track record. On the whole, if Obama is in the position to earn enough in speaking fees to be a philanthropist, I think that would be the likely outcome.

    More generally, the speaker’s bureau gig does seem strange to a guy like me. $400,000 or more for a 45 minute speech? It likewise seems strange to me that some professional athletes are paid extraordinary salaries to play a game they love while wearing funny looking uniforms.

    But if you think about it, if a professional organization wants to have a successful national convention, it is probably worth it to them to land a keynote speaker like Obama. It will lead some people to decide to attend the convention; it may lead some other speakers to want to attend in order to be on a panel with Obama at some point; plus there is the publicity impact. So if the market says that that is what Obama is worth as a keynote speaker, that is what he is worth. I felt the same with regard to Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s a good gig if you can get into it. Why not do it?