Yesterday we learned that President Obama has accepted a $400,000 fee for speaking to a healthcare conference sponsored by the Cantor Fitzgerald investment bank. The level of outrage that greeted the news is completely ridiculous. Many on both the right and the left have leapt up to accuse him of hypocrisy, or of being susceptible to bribery by Wall Street. Elizabeth Warren tells us she is “troubled” by this speaking fee, saying “one of the things I talk about in [my] book (“This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class”) is the influence of money. I describe it as a snake that slithers through Washington and that it shows up in so many different ways here in Washington.” Indeed it is a terrible indictment of Washington that a former politician who is not a lobbyist and lives in Chicago might accept overpayment for speaking about healthcare, which, as everyone knows, is a policy area in which he has dabbled from time to time. Either the politicians claiming this is related to bribery are being disingenuous, or they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the speaking circuit in which so many retired politicians participate.
This isn’t bribery, it’s a status contest
Warren’s linking of Obama to money in Washington is hysterical nonsense. Barack Obama is a private citizen who will never again run for public office (Hillary Clinton’s speeches were only controversial because she went back to Washington). You can’t bribe someone who doesn’t have the power to make laws. The people paying him to speak are not doing so to influence policy; they are doing so to prove their status and attract people to their healthcare conference. Rich organizations regularly pay former politicians and central bankers to speak on a wide variety of topics in order to attract movers and shakers to their events. These politicians’ speaking fees are proportionate to the importance of their former jobs. So Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, commands a mere $48,000 (in avg 2015 dollars), Tony Blair, a former 2 term Prime Minister, commands $600,000. Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, both George Bushes, Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, Al Gore, Howard Dean, Ben Bernanke, and Alan Greenspan are all on the speech circuit. Some of these speeches are at fundraisers, like the charity fundraiser for veterans that paid George W. Bush $100,000, some for conferences, and some for corporate retreats. These fundraisers and conferences are paying these guys to say “we have a former US President at our conference, but our competition only has the former Mayor of New York – give us your money.”
These politicians speak to their areas of expertise
There is no indication any of them are saying something different from what they have always thought. Nicolas Sarkozy, former President of France, famously told the United Israel Appeal fundraiser’s audience that the international community must pressure Israel to take down the “walls of Jericho” with which it has surrounded itself and create a Palestinian state. Sarkozy had made the Middle East peace process (to the extent one exists) a central focus of his Presidency, and so a private group paid him to talk about his views on the issue. Given Sarkozy’s commitment to a 2 state solution, they shouldn’t have been surprised about what he said. Nor has there been any indication that Bill Clinton has given speeches inconsistent with his philosophy or that of his foundation. Clinton pretty much says what he wants – conferences that hire hire him don’t even necessarily get speeches on topic. The speech circuit is basically just a pissing contest between rich organizations to get the most revered former politicians and government officials to talk about their experience in a private setting once those politicians and government officials don’t have to worry about what they say in the Press (or at least don’t have to worry as much). The organizers and sponsors are using the draw of being “in the know” and having more private access to famous politicians to promote their events. As long as Obama does not abandon all his principles to pander to his audience, there is no justification for accusing him of moral bankruptcy or hypocrisy, as some on the left have done.
The Presidency is the worst job on earth, be glad someone is paying Obama for the years it took off his life
Anyone ever notice how rapidly our last three two-term Presidents have aged? They have the worst and most difficult job in the world. These men spent 8 years never really having a moment to themselves, making the most difficult decisions on earth (always imperfectly) and being publicly shamed and lambasted for every misstep, great or small. I don’t think any of us can truly understand what that does to a human being. There is no comparable job on earth, and no one goes into it fully understanding what it will do to them. Indeed, Donald Trump has and complained incessantly about how difficult the job is, and proved his assertion by being too incompetent to even nominate sufficient staff to run the government. Obama in particular suffered more illegitimate, prejudiced personal attacks than anyone before him, and he withstood it with grace. I don’t think there is any amount of money we could have paid him to compensate for that honorable self-restraint. If a bunch of status-seeking fools want to overpay him to give his opinion about his signature healthcare law, I think we should tell him to have at it. There are much more important things to worry about.