Liberals, Obama, and that Wall Street Speaking Fee

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Former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden walk through the the Capitol for Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony. 

On Monday in this space, our columnist and colleague Paul Waldman addressed the subject of why liberals are upset about Barack Obama taking a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street firm, Cantor-Fitzgerald, for a speech scheduled for September.

Waldman opined, “You'd almost think Obama had begun lobbying for the repeal of Dodd-Frank, or maybe gone on a seal-clubbing expedition.” He continued, in an affectionate reminiscence about the Obama presidency, that a lot of the liberal disappointment or anger reflected upset at the contrast between Obama and Trump. 

I can’t speak for other liberals or progressives, but here are some thoughts about my own disappointment.

As the contrast with Trump vividly reinforces, Barack Obama was one of the most principled, thoughtful, and honorable people ever to serve as president. He was a model of dignity and probity.

His biggest mistake—and in my view anyway, a mistake that undermined his presidency—was to turn to the very people who had deregulated Wall Street as his senior economic team. These were the protégés of former Citibank and Goldman chieftain and top Clinton economic official Robert Rubin, many of whom had led the parade to let Wall Street run wild.

These included Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke (a carryover Bush appointee reappointed by Obama), but also other denizens of the Wall Street-Washington revolving door who not only supported deregulation but also austerity, and deregulation disguised as trade, such as Peter Orszag and Michael Froman.

When Obama took office, Paul Volcker was sidelined by this crowd, as too radical on the subject of regulation. That noted Bolshevik, Paul Volcker!

This team was basically in place before the November election, when the banking system collapsed in September 2008. Obama’s program was so closely associated with a politics of propping the financial system up rather than cleaning it out, that when a CNBC agitator, Rick Santelli, ranting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (!), called for a “Tea Party” revolt, Santelli had more credibility as a populist than Obama did. This prefigured Donald Trump.

And when the Obama austerity team prematurely projected a “recovery summer” for 2010, killed legislation for a second stimulus, and warmly supported the Wall Street-inspired Bowles-Simpson Commission, Obama helped set himself up for the epic Democratic congressional defeat in the 2010 midterm elections.

Thus Wall Street’s gift to Obama and the Democrats: a team of Rubins, austerity economics, and a Democratic Party that looked to Middle America like it represented somebody else.

So when Obama accepts a $400,000 Wall Street gig, this produces not just disappointment but a deep concern about a tactical tin ear and a continuing association that is politically toxic for a progressive reconnection with working people who turned to Trump. It reminds us of another leading Democratic figure with an even tinnier ear, one Hillary Clinton.

Obama, of course, has a perfect right to take the money. That’s not the question. The question is whether this is a good idea, both for Obama and for the Democrats.

Obama is now a wealthy man. His net worth is estimated around $13 million and rapidly rising. He will become much wealthier, from his books and from plenty of speaking engagements that will produce an annual income well into seven figures.

I don’t object to the occasional high dollar speech, but let’s see more speeches to groups seeking racial reconciliation, or to groups pursuing better job opportunities for working America, or to any venue other than Wall Street.

Obama taking that kind of money from Wall Street reinforces the impression that the very rich really do control it all; that maybe there is not so much difference between a thug billionaire former developer president and a polished former law professor ex-president—they are both too comfortable with the moneyed class.

One could understand and even condone Obama’s walking on eggshells on the fraught subjects of race and class while he was president. But now he is free at last—free to exercise constructive influence on the public debate. Free to personify a salutary contrast with Donald Trump—and with Wall Street.

So that’s why this particular liberal thought it sad—and sadly emblematic—that Obama takes a sum from Wall Street for one speech that is about ten times what the average American makes in a year. It had nothing to do with nostalgia, except maybe for FDR.

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