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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.



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