It’s been less than a year since he left office, but former President Barack Obama is already cashing in. This week, Bloomberg reported that Obama has joined the long list of former presidents and high officeholders to rake in ungodly amounts of money giving paid speeches on Wall Street. For Obama, a popular former president who steered the American economy through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, that means a combined $1.2 million for three scheduled speeches in Lower Manhattan.
His decision is hardly surprising given the established precedent (who can forget the headache Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches caused her on the campaign trail?). But Obama’s direct path from the presidency to the Wall Street speaking circuit is uniquely disappointing. Indeed, it is a betrayal of the aspirational brand of politics that he has represented for his entire career in public life.
To be clear, it is hard to imagine that the financial institutions paying Obama, who will almost certainly never again hold elected office, expect favorable policy outcomes in return for their cash. In this sense, Obama is not engaging in the kind of quid pro quo that Secretary Clinton was accused of by figures on the left and, especially hypocritically, the right.
But that is beside the point. Obama — because of his earned credibility and unique platform — has a distinct obligation to help stem the rise of cynicism about government and institutions. And instead of assuring the public that it is compassion and integrity that animates his liberal worldview, he is making them question whether they should have ever trusted him at all.
As Obama is acutely aware, he heads to Wall Street during a period of great turmoil within the Democratic Party and the broader American body politic. The Trump election was a disturbing wake up call to the electorate’s disaffection with the political mainstream. And people have good reason to be mad: Wall Street profits are surging again, but middle-class wages have been stagnant since long before Obama entered the Oval Office. In short, the moment is ripe for more of the very kind of populist uprisings that challenge Obama’s brand of center-left, technocratic politics.
But here’s the catch: the extreme voices on both sides do not offer serious solutions. Even progressive icon Bernie Sanders gets caught peddling easy answers to hard problems. It is Obama’s more tempered progressive vision which must — and ultimately will — win the day. However, Obama’s pivot to paid speeches gives ammunition to those who question the choices he made to save the American economy. Obama’s decision to bail out the banks was politically disastrous, but it was substantively made with a keen eye for Main Street, which would have drowned alongside Wall Street if not for his actions. But why trust Obama now? He’s making a pretty penny for 40-minutes of hobnobbing with the executives whose jobs he saved.
In an era where the conservative movement (to the extent that it ever stood for something principled) has been co-opted by ethno-nationalist forces, and Republicans in Congress continue to play lapdog to President Trump, we already see Democrats taking the bait and combating conservative extremism with overly-simplistic counterpunches. Just this week, several Democrats with 2020 ambitions announced their support for a vague single-payer healthcare plan designed to appeal to their liberal primary base. Meanwhile, sensing an opening, Republicans used the opportunity to renew their morally abhorrent effort to repeal Obamacare. And this time, they might actually succeed.
Obama, who has always warned his allies on his left against shortsighted impulses, must continue to show that hope and change needn’t necessitate revolution. But for the center to hold, politicians like Obama must give people a reason to believe that moderation does not always equal corruption.
The former president risks losing his credibility with the idealistic liberals that populate campuses like Lewis & Clark, who have historically supported Obama but were deeply skeptical of Clinton and her perceived pay-for-play politics. Hillary fatigue was easy to spot on campus last fall. The activist base of the party favored Bernie Sanders, and it was hard for Clinton to recover their support in the general election. While it is important that young progressives not become so ideologically rigid as to lose sight of the bigger picture, it becomes easier to retreat to our corners when the party’s mainstream keeps letting us down.
Perhaps the Obamas should invest their reported $65 million book deal payout on Wall Street, but stay away from giving speeches there. The cost is too high.