Former President Barack Obama’s decision to accept a $400,000 fee to speak at a health care conference organized by the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald is easily understood. That’s so much cash, for so little work, that it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to turn it down. And the precedent established by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to say nothing of former Federal Reserve Chairs Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and a slew of other high-ranking former officials, is that there is nothing wrong with taking the money.
Indeed, to not take the money might be a problem for someone in Obama’s position. It would set a precedent.
Obama would be suggesting that for an economically comfortable high-ranking former government official to be out there doing paid speaking gigs would be corrupt, sleazy, or both. He’d be looking down his nose at the other corrupt, sleazy former high-ranking government officials and making enemies.
Which is exactly why he should have turned down the gig.
The election in France earlier this week shows that the triumph of populist demagogues is far from inevitable. But to beat it, mainstream politicians and institutions need to shape up — not just with better policies, but with the kind of self-sacrificing spirit and moral leadership that successful movements require.
Someone in Obama’s position can’t really rely on a “hate the game, not the players” defense with respect to America’s underachieving and overcompensated elites showering many times the country’s median income on each other to deliver platitudes, because he can work to discredit the game.
I’m not sure I buy Matt’s subsequent argument that Clinton’s buckraking was crucial to her being unable to translate Obama’s popularity into an Electoral College win. The media did not press the issue during the general — although it’s a much more legitimate line of attack on Clinton than her email server management — not least because many elite journos are either on the speaking fee gravy train or hope to be. But who knows in an election this close, and more to the point no matter how politically damaging it is it’s just wrong. In a time in which ordinary workers have faced austerity for a long time, already-rich people showering each other with huge sums of money to deliver speeches to captive audiences, put their names on college syllabi, etc. is gross. Obama is in a position to set a new precedent for liberal elites, and he should.