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Barack Obama’s $400K: dimming hope for change


It’s hard to focus on anything in national politics right now other than the Republicans’ attack on health care, but I can’t shake off my frustration with the former president.

Frustration and deep, deep disappointment.

I don’t know how I thought Barack Obama would spend the first year after leaving the White House. Certainly public speaking, on issues he cares deeply about, would be logical. But I sure never imagined this:
Obama is being paid $400,000 for a single speech at a health-care conference sponsored by the investment banking firm Cantor Fitzgerald.

Media reports say the event is private, so you and I likely won’t learn what he says (unless somebody surreptitiously records it and posts it online). Who’ll be there to hear him? Cantor Fitzgerald, says the New York Times, “hopes to woo wealthy investors, mutual fund representatives, and hedge fund executives to the conference.”

The Cantor Fitzgerald folks aren’t paying Obama for his speaking ability. They’re not paying him because the firm’s leaders think he’ll say something newsworthy about health care. They’re not paying him out of the goodness of their hearts in order to educate the wealthy investors, mutual fund reps, and hedge fund execs who show up.

They’re paying Barack Obama just to be there. So the wealthy investors, mutual fund reps, and hedge fund execs can say they’ve heard him, have been part of an exclusive group in the very same room with him.
They’re paying him to burnish the image of Cantor Fitzgerald. To score points with those wealthy investors, mutual fund reps, and hedge fund execs.

To make money for Cantor Fitzgerald.

Barack Obama is selling his face, his presence, his aura, for $400,000 a pop. And he’s worth $400,000 for one reason only: because the American people elected him president.

I am absolutely dismayed.

Some Obama supporters have argued that there’s nothing wrong with Obama accepting that kind of fee. Cantor Fitzgerald isn’t paying him in order to curry favors, those supporters say. It’s not trying to bribe him so he’ll support policies that’ll benefit them. He’s no longer in office, and he won’t be running for elected office in the future. So the money’s clean.

Balderdash. That’s not the problem.

First of all, there’s a point at which, morally, enough money is simply enough. More is, well, obscene. And $400,000 for a single speech is obscene. (And yes, so is the $60 million that Penguin Random House is paying Barack and Michele Obama for a book deal.)

Perhaps just as serious: Obama has done a great disservice to his political party. The Democrats had been attracting not only young voters recently but also young people interested in being involved in politics. Bernie Sanders had managed to reignite the young-voter enthusiasm that Obama had generated. Many of those voters stuck with the Democratic Party for the general election, despite their very grave concerns about Hillary Clinton.

Clinton had seemed too elitist, too removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Too tied to wealthy interests. Republicans weren’t the only voters with those concerns, and Clinton’s closed-door speeches to Wall Street firms magnified the problem.

(Note that in the key states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, enough voters chose Green Party candidate Jill Stein that it cost Clinton the Electoral College vote.)

The Democratic Party desperately needs to change its message – and its heart. Barack Obama could have led that change. But his post-presidency deals make him look like a Clinton Democrat, not a Democrat of hope and change.

I know, I know: Why shouldn’t our first black president get to cash in like other former presidents? Why the higher standard for a black former president than for a white one?

But there’s no “higher standard.” It’s the same standard. The former presidents who cashed in on their voter-granted fame failed to meet it. Now Obama has, too.