by Anne Summers Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast
Et tu, Barack? That was my reaction when I heard the news that former US President Barack Obama has agreed to a speaking gig on Wall Street for which he will be paid $US400,000 ($535,000).
Not bad coin in anyone’s language. It’s twice what Bill Clinton commanded when he went on the post-presidential speaking circuit. It’s in addition to the $US200,000 annual pension, plus lifetime free healthcare Obama gets for having been President. It’s on top of the $US65 million he and wife Michelle are reported to have negotiated for their book deal with Penguin Random House.
And it’s not like he was hard up to start with. He reported an adjusted income of $US477,383 in 2015 and, just during the eight years he was in Washington, he earned $US15.6 million in royalties from his wonderful books Dreams From My Father, Audacity of Hope and Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.
This man does not need the money.
But what he does need is for us to continue to believe in him, to learn from him and, above all, to continue to respect him. And more than ever, we need him. We need him to stand above the chaotic fray of Trumpian politics and help us see clearly what is in jeopardy, what must be preserved, how we can save our ideals and our polity.
This one seemingly greedy act has put all that in jeopardy.
It’s just weeks since he said, just before he left office: “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain.”
When he said this, I did not expect that he’d be rolling up his sleeves and returning to the south side of Chicago as a community organiser but nor did I think he was signalling that he’d be spending his days cavorting on super yachts with superstars or dining with Bono in classy Manhattan restaurants.
For the man who says on the website of his foundation: “We are the change that we seek”, these are pretty mixed messages about what’s on Barack Obama’s future agenda.
His first public engagement since leaving office was last Monday, speaking with students about community engagement at the University of Chicago at what was, presumably, an unpaid gig. I imagine there will be more of this but there is also going to be more of the stratospheric fees for speaking engagements in Europe and elsewhere.
The Obamas have signed with the Harry Walker Agency, a legendary agency that boasts a bucketful of former leaders on its books. If you can’t get Michelle, you could settle for Hillary Clinton or Julia Gillard. If Barack’s busy, there’s always Bill Clinton or Ban Ki Moon or the former prime ministers of almost every country you’ve ever heard of.
I guess we expected something more of the man who sang Amazing Grace at a funeral for a slain preacher in South Carolina, who tore at our heartstrings with his “Bloody Sunday” speech in Selma in 2015 and who always seemed to have the right words for every occasion.
Obama responded to the global financial crisis with a massive stimulus that began economic recovery, bailed out the auto industry, provided health insurance to millions who previously were denied cover, passed Dodd-Franks to regulate Wall Street, initiated major environmental, social and technological reforms and – those were the days! – had the most diverse cabinet in presidential history.
He was the President who nurtured this legacy, devoting his final months to interviews and events that would ensure he was remembered for change we could believe in.
So what happened?
His defenders are spinning the story that we should not be affronted, that the money will go to his foundation (which promises to nurture citizens of the future – whatever that means) or to some other good cause, that he is not being hypocritical for accepting big bucks from the “fat cat bankers” he derided in office.
That’s a tough case to make. Anyone with a political antenna – not to mention a human heart – would understand that doing a gig like this telegraphs a disdain for the financial hardship that is the lot of way too many Americans.
It would take the average American household eight years to earn what Barack Obama will get for an hour’s lunchtime speech to the Cantor Fitzgerald Conference.
Is Barack Obama really telling us he no longer has common cause with the people who put him in the White House? That he has cut and run to follow the money.
No wonder politicians are hated. No wonder people are being elected who have zero experience in government. No wonder populism is rising.
Barack Obama would be fighting this trend, I thought, not feeding it.
Tell me it ain’t so.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 28 April 2017