Sell-out. Hypocrite. Greedy. Critics of Barack Obama’s decision to take six-figure speaking fees from Wall Street have used or implied all of these terms — and that’s just from among the former president’s allies. Writing today in the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus concedes that this has become a tradition for former presidents, but that makes it no less unseemly for a retiree who used to rail against corporate greed:
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. …
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.
The former first couple have a lucrative future already in the memoir business. The bidding price for a joint book deal went over the $60 million mark, an astounding sum that seems less connected to potential book sales than it does to publishers’ egos. Marcus wonders why that’s not enough for the man who once argued that there should be a limit to largesse:
Marcus might be better off recalling the run-up to Obama’s second presidential campaign. When it first appeared in the summer of 2011 that Mitt Romney would become the Republican frontrunner in the 2012 election, Obama began turning up the heat on his class-warfare rhetoric. That inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement in October 2011, which then franchised out into several other Occupy efforts around the country, a progressive activism which Obama and the White House fanned for their own political purposes.
“At this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings,” Mr. Obama said, who praised King’s belief in the “creative tension of nonviolent protests.”
“If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there,” the president said. “Those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as divisive. They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all.”
Maybe this is Obama occupying Wall Street in a different way, eh? His decision to cash in certainly doesn’t represent a “challenge to the existing arrangements”; it’s an embrace of them and the “excesses of Wall Street,” which these extraordinary speaking fees epitomize. It reveals the cynical nature of Obama’s use of progressive activists in 2011-12 to demonize Romney for his wealth. It was pure political contrivance, and one reason why Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are speaking out now is because Obama has merely made it obvious.
That being said, the problem here isn’t that Obama’s selling his wares on the open market for speakers. As Marcus notes, this is significantly less problematic than what the Clintons did for more than a decade while they schemed to get back into the White House. The Clinton Foundation and all of the speaking gigs were clearly an influence-peddling operation, which is why it’s going defunct after Hillary’s defeat. The Obamas do not appear to have those ambitions; Michelle Obama reiterated her complete lack of interest in going back this week. In a way, their motives are purer; they just want the cash.
There two larger issues with this new cashout tradition, neither of which are particular to the Obamas. First, taxpayers still pay former presidents lots of money to fund their operations. We’ve already spent $16 million and counting on Bill Clinton, a figure that would have paid his presidential salary for forty years. That’s not to call for an end to their security arrangements, but there is no longer any need to subsidize offices, travel, libraries, etc. Their market value as speakers and writers is almost inexhaustible. Congress should end the retirement spending on former presidents, at least for the future. (Donald Trump will live in big-league luxury with or without it when the time comes. Trust me. It’ll be so tremendous, you won’t believe it.)
The second real problem is the consolidation that drives this excess from Wall Street. Investment companies that can afford to throw away $400,000 on an hour with a former president is an investment company that has gotten too big for common sense. That’s money that didn’t go to retirees, investors, and Main Street; it went to feed the egos of those who were supposed to be stewards for those people. Marcus hits on this point in part by shaming Obama for not using this opportunity to point out the nouveau riche gauchery in these spectacles, which has grown much less remarkable as it has become more ubiquitous.
However, it’s not just the gauchery, but the fact that it flaunts how much power has accumulated at the top, both financial and political. Too big to fail also means too big to oppose. If conservatives and populists could find one area of common ground, corporatism/crony capitalism should be it. It’s time to start looking at anti-trust policies more seriously, and to reduce the fiscal and political dangers of too big to fail. Small government and market consolidations have turned out to be mutually exclusive, and we will have to choose which we would rather have.