Et Tu, O?

Taking time away from unpresidenting Tr-mp on this blog is not something I want to do. But in this case, I think I need to address something unpleasant that I did not see coming.

By now you have read the headline:

Obama to be paid $400,000 for Cantor Fitzgerald speech

Cantor Fitzgerald is an investment bank and brokerage firm. You may remember that its corporate headquarters was located inside of One World Trade Center on 9/11. And you may remember that it lost more than two-thirds of its employees—658 people—including the brother of the CEO, Howard Lutnick. According to Wikipedia,

the company was able to bring its trading markets back online within a week. On September 19, Cantor Fitzgerald made a pledge to distribute 25 percent of the firm’s profits for the next five years, and committed to paying for ten years of health care, for the benefit of the families of its 658 former Cantor Fitzgerald, eSpeed, and TradeSpark employees (profits which would otherwise have been distributed to the Cantor Fitzgerald partners). In 2006, the company completed its promise, having paid a total of $180 million (and an additional $17 million from a relief fund run by Lutnick’s sister, Edie).

New York magazine published an article in 2011 that credited the “willful determination of Lutnick and the other survivors” for the firm’s subsequent success and noted:

…it’s been suggested their crisis-preparedness helped them avoid some of the worst of the crash of 2008: While Cantor trafficked heavily in the mortgage bonds that would prove to be the downfall of many, it wisely did not hang on to any for itself. Its financial success has allowed the firm to extend its philanthropy: According to Edie Lutnick, funds earmarked for memorializing family members lost on 9/11 have given life to 500 new charities, including a Manhattan-based bereavement center for children, and the company recently donated money from its annual charity day to the victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Which distinguishes it in the disaster of this decade, too: It may be the only company that bought and sold lousy mortgage bonds that can plausibly lay claim to a greater social purpose.

Okay. Perhaps this particular Wall Street investment bank is better than most. Perhaps it is worthy of President Obama’s time and prestige. I don’t know. I do know that its CEO, Howard Lutnick, backed John McCain in 2008. And I know he backed Jeb Bush last year. And I know the event at which Obama will speak, a “healthcare conference,” was described by the company “as an opportunity to introduce investors to executives at dozens of the biggest healthcare companies,” according to CNBC. And there is something else I know: our ex-president, the guy many of us thought was just a little bit different from other politicians, is wrong to take such a large fee for speaking, unless he plans to donate the money to some kind of charity (we don’t know whether he plans to or not).

At any time, but particularly at this Tr-mpian time, it is unseemly and off-putting for Mr. Obama to feed the cynicism that has infected our country, our electorate, our politics. He has often talked about that cynicism, which helped bring us Tr-mp and Tr-mpism. In fact, he talked about it the other day at the University of Chicago, during an event designed to get young people involved in “changing the world.” Wait. Let me quote him in full (emphasis mine):

I’m spending a lot of time thinking, “What is the most important thing I can do for my next job?” And what I’m convinced of is that, although there are all kinds of issues I care about and all kinds of issues I intend to work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help, in any way I can, prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and take their own crack at changing the world.

Because the one thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges from economic inequality and lack of opportunity to a criminal justice system that too often is skewed in ways that are unproductive to climate change to, you know, issues related to violence. All those problems are serious. They’re daunting. But they’re not insolvable.

What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life. It has to do with the fact that because of things like political gerrymandering our parties have moved further and further apart and it’s harder and harder to find common ground. Because of money and politics.

Special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don’t match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel.

The next day we learned about that $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street bank.

To put it bluntly, it is hard not to be cynical in the face of the news that Obama seems to be, like so many before him, cashing in. Again, we don’t know what he plans on doing with the money, but assuming the worst, assuming he merely adds it to the $65 million he and Michelle got from Penguin Random House for two books they are writing, it is all very depressing.

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put this stunning development in a larger context:

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.

That means some people are going to have to start making less money and raising the ethical bar for conduct, rather than leveling down to the worst acts of their predecessors.

That is exactly right. And I would have been the first to argue that President Obama was someone who would not cash in and would in fact raise the ethical bar for out-of-office conduct. Now, though, unless all that Wall Street money he will get goes to charity, I will have no real argument. Obama, despite his soaring words over the years, despite his inspirational, civic-minded talk to young folks in Chicago the other day, will have become part of the problem of a creeping, crippling cynicism torturing liberal democracies everywhere. Yglesias writes (again, my emphasis):

a crucial vulnerability of center-left politics around the world is that their sincere conviction — a faith in the positive-sum nature of cosmopolitan values and appropriately regulated forms of global capitalism, tempered by a welfare state — is easily mistaken for corruption. The political right is supposed to be pro-business as a matter of ideological commitment. The progressive center is supposed to be empirically minded, challenging business interests where appropriate but granting them free rein at other times.

This approach has a lot of political and substantive merits. But it is invariably subject to the objection: really?

Did you really avoid breaking up the big banks because you thought it would undermine financial stability, or were you on the take? Did you really think a fracking ban would be bad for the environment, or were you on the take? One man’s sophisticated and pragmatic approach to public policy can be the other man’s grab bag of corrupt opportunism.

Image result for obama appears in chicagoMr. Obama needs to think about something the next time—and there will be plenty of next times—some “fat cats” come to him with a basketful of money asking for a few minutes of his time. He needs to think about how a lowly blogger here in Missouri, one who spent eight years believing in his vision for the country and defending his personal integrity, might feel if, as our former president, he enriches himself by speaking to people who aren’t interested in furthering the causes that so many of us who supported Obama believe in. No, actually, he needs to think about how his conduct out of office, his conduct as someone whose integrity so many people genuinely thought transcended the corruption surrounding the money-based system in Washington, will turn so many people away from a hope of transforming the system.

He needs to think about how many cynics $400,000 can buy.

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13 Comments

  1. Barack Obama became a party insider when he became President Obama. What’s wrong with the party of Hillary and Tom and Chuck and Barack is its dependence on corporate money. How did you not see this coming? You gonna blame Bernie for this, too?

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    • Anonymous

       /  April 26, 2017

      Generalist,

      I think there is plenty of blame to be placed. The DNC, was unable to field a candidate without a 25 year history of media bias beaten into the public until there was a gag reflex at the mention of the name. Of the entire party, not one came forward against a candidate who was more qualified, but with a toxicity that was apparent to all. It didn’t matter if the toxicity was implied or justified, it was public opinion. And now our choices are Perez or Ellison?

      The news media celebrated the horse race despite the fact that Trump had obvious mental defects, failed businesses, no ethics, and was a traitor to the country. The media, in my opinion, bears the greatest responsibility for not acting in our country’s interest as opposed to the own financial interests. Would more people have voted if alarms were going off, who knows, many were disgusted by the choice of the two. Some went Green or Libertarian against the reality of the two party system.

      To blame Bernie is just whining, he was only an option for change, which is exactly what the rust belt and a declining middle class were hoping to occur. Trump sold these people that bill of goods and despite losing the popular vote, stole the election. I have no problem with Obama now speaking for profit, he is no longer in office. Our last nominee didn’t wait. Trump should be impeached and probably will be, it will be interesting to see what the DNC can offer during the next election, if we live through this disaster.

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      • Butting in here, please explain this:

        I have no problem with Obama now speaking for profit, he is no longer in office. Our last nominee didn’t wait.

        I wasn’t aware that Hillary Clinton took large speaking fees while she was “in office.” She took them while she was a private citizen, just like Obama is now. And she was handed her ass for doing so. It was the one thing that disturbed me about her and her husband, which I expressed time and again. And it disturbs me even more that Obama seems to be doing the same thing. He portrayed himself as better than that.

        Duane

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        • Anonymous

           /  April 27, 2017

          Duane,

          You are correct that she wasn’t in office at the time, but she had plans to run for the presidency, knowing that those speeches would haunt her later. Obama is not running for anything in the future, and why shouldn’t he be rewarded? Not one hedge fund manager, mortgage brokerage firm, not one banker went to prison for fraud against the taxpayer. That is the biggest fault of his tenure, for an otherwise remarkable performance. If now, these financiers feel the need to “repay” his tolerance with speaking fees, so be it. I sincerely doubt Obama didn’t press for prosecutions, to be rewarded by these fees.

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          • Duane, he speaks here for me as well.

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          • You won’t get an argument from me that Hillary Clinton’s (and Bill’s) “cashing in” was unseemly. I said so during the election. But there is something much different, at least for me, that Obama is doing essentially the same thing now. Perhaps it is because I was an Obama guy from the start, way back in 2007, when Hillary was the most popular choice. Perhaps it is because I believed his message, particularly his message about how our politics was distorted by outside interests, particularly moneyed-interests. Perhaps it is because, as I listened to him speak to young folks the other day in Chicago, that I heard the same idealistic guy I originally fell in political love with, one who recognized what a crucial role he played in history, and one who, if he conducts himself in a certain way during his post-presidency, can do a lot to improve our political landscape.

            I do not begrudge him the money for the books he and his wife are writing. Writing is hard work and he deserves every penny for that. But just appearing among a bunch of wealthy folks, saying a few words, and “earning” $400,000, is something I never thought he would do. Maybe I’m naive, maybe it’s just my fierce resistance to cynicism, but I really didn’t think he would go that route. And I never thought he would go that route and have so many people who admire him just shrug their shoulders at his choice to do so. 

            Duane

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    • This has nothing to do with Obama being a “party insider.” And it has nothing to do with the party soliciting corporate donations to run campaigns. No one has written more about the negative effect of big money on politics than I have, but I recognize that corporate money is part of how the system works, whether I like it or not. You play by the rules in place, not the rules you wish were in place. You might wish only to have a shoving match with a guy at a local bar who is harassing a young lady, but if he pulls out a gun, it would do you no good, in fact it would be stupid, to tell him he wasn’t playing fair and proceed with your shoving. Corporate money is part of the system. Not all corporations out there are evil entities. It is possible to take corporate money, at least take it from some corporations, without selling out the working class. If the party is forced, through Bernie’s campaign against the party, to forego corporate money, then he’d better quickly come up with another way to fund a two or three billion dollar presidential campaign next time, not to mention all those congressional races that need money. Sheldon Adelson could give more money to the GOP in one swoop than all the donors on Bernie’s secret email list put together could give to Democrats.

      Obama took a lot of Wall Street money in 2008 and he managed to piss off the same people from whom he took the money. It matters what you actually do while you have political power. It matters if you take corporate money and then your policies help screw workers. I don’t think a fair reading of Obama’s presidency will find he was a front man for corporate interests, even though here and there you can point to something that might indicate he should have done more for the working class.

      And speaking of Bernie, I do blame him for poisoning the well (especially among young people) in Democratic politics with all his corruption talk. He paints with too broad a brush. Plus, he refuses to become a “party insider” because it’s so goddamned easy to throw rocks from the outside. Once you join, once you come inside, you are suddenly responsible for what happens (ask Republicans who are finding out that throwing rocks at Democrats in power is much easier than governing now). Suddenly people start blaming you for everything that happens. Bernie seems content with throwing rocks and breaking windows, as far as I can tell.  So long as he refuses to become a Democrat, his opinion about the party means virtually nothing to me. I wouldn’t take kindly to freeloaders in my labor union ranting about how bad my union is, saying how it needs to be “radically transformed.” I’d say what I have always said to those creeps: “Join the union if you want to make it better. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.”

      I guess what I am trying to say here is that not all Democrats are in power just for the hell of it. Some of them, most of them in fact, join the party and run for office and take money from those willing to give it, to do good things for the poor and working classes in America, bettering life for all people. And it pisses me off when someone like Obama, who in so many ways presented himself as an icon of civic virtue, feeds the kind of cynicism that Bernie Sanders then exploits for his own purposes, noble or not.

      I have said that Bernie can do a lot of good for the party and the country. But as far as I’m concerned he can’t do it the way he is doing it now. Not everyone in the Democratic Party who takes money from businesses or rich people is corrupt. But Bernie makes it sound like it. He is doing the party no favors with his holier-than-thou preaching. Believe me, I know some on our side don’t want to hear it, but Bernie turns a lot of Democrats off, especially since he seems so damned determined not to want to officially associate with us.

      And everyone knows how much I respect Barack Obama. But he is doing the party and the country no good by acting like so many have acted before him. Both Bernie and Obama are, or should be, better than that.

      Duane

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  2. OK, Big O is cashing in on his celebrity. Cantor Fitzgerald wants to pay him lavishly to do that, I suppose because it is a form of advertising that raises their name recognition in their industry and in the public. Side benefits include publicizing his message which, knowing Obama, ought to be beneficial to the Democratic Party and perhaps even to healing some edges of the political divide. I can picture it because his approval ratings in the polls have been positive. Should he shun large speaking fees out of disdain for materialists and their materialist motives? Actually I think that might actually paint him in the public eye as a starry-eyed idealist ungrounded in reality. As it is, Forbes reported that the Obamas gave a million dollars to charity while they were in the White House.

    In politics, money is power, and it’s also respected in the body politic. One of the strongest memes that boosted Trump’s rise was that his wealth made him seem smart. Just to take an extreme example, I’ve got a feeling that if Jesus returned under a pseudonym as a low-income carpenter and ran for office, he probably wouldn’t draw much of a crowd in today’s America. No, I can’t really blame him for openly taking the money any more than I blame sports and entertainment celebrities for their enormous salaries.

    I have great respect for Obama’s integrity and I fully expect him to play an important role in making the party effective again. Sitting out the public scene for three months was smart strategy, seems to me.

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    • Jim,

      I’m kind of surprised at your response.

      I can believe that Obama will go before those bankers and investors and whatever fat cats are there and give them a lecture on their social responsibilities. In fact, I could almost guarantee that he’d do something along those lines. But that won’t erase the damage he has done (I have heard from others on this matter who feel the same way I do; so it’s not just my own sensibilities in play here) by doing what so many see as, as you put it yourself, “cashing in.” Just think about the connotation of that term in our politics today, Jim. Taking such a large fee (and keeping it for himself) just feeds into the narrative that “they’re all corrupt,” “they’re all in it for themselves,” and so on down the road to utter cynicism and the collapse of liberal democracies, which depend on a certain amount of trust that our political leaders aren’t all greedy bastards in it just for themselves.

      And this really stunned me:

      Should he shun large speaking fees out of disdain for materialists and their materialist motives? Actually I think that might actually paint him in the public eye as a starry-eyed idealist ungrounded in reality.

      Obama spent most of his rhetorical career being a starry-eyed idealist. If you listened to his Chicago event the other day (I listened to it all), you would come away with the impression that he is still in fact such a starry-eyed idealist, ungrounded or not. He has always presented himself that way, from his 2004 convention speech right up to a few days ago. I’m sorry, but you can’t one day tell young people to be civic-minded and then the next day accept $400,000 for a speech in front of fat cats (his words) and keep your credibility for long. It seems to me he failed to realize how bad this would look, or, worse, he didn’t care. I hope the former is true and not the latter.

      Obama was not a professional athlete. He was not an entertainer. Those folks deserve whatever the market (and their unions) allows them to demand. Obama was much more than that. He was POTUS. As Matthew Yglesias tried to point out, populist demagogues can triumph if we’re not careful. The mainstream has to do better to keep that from happening. And no one was more mainstream, in manners and in policy, than President Obama. He should, as Yglesias argued, raise the ethical bar of post-presidential behavior. If Lebron James gets an extra million or two or twenty each year for endorsements, that’s one thing. No one looks to him to keep liberal democracies stable and prevent demagogues like Tr-mp from ruining liberal democracies. We, or some of us, do look to people like Obama for helping with that herculean task.

      As for you claim that many people saw Tr-mp as “smart” because he was rich, I’m sure some of them did. But one has to ask: Are those the kind of people Obama and the Democrats ever appealed to? Or, to be more clear, are those the kind of people Democrats should want to appeal to? If you look at Tr-mp and listen to him and think he is in any way “smart,” just because he has a gold-plated shitter, then you are beyond reaching by any rational means, as far as I’m concerned.

      Finally, I, too, have great respect for O’s integrity. But if he takes that money without donating a big hunk of it to charity, I’ll have diminished respect for him. And I won’t be alone, which is the sad and depressing part of all this.

      Duane

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      • Duane,

        I want to thank you for making me think more about Obama’s $400,000. My initial opinion was based on the understanding that quid-pro-quo was not an issue in this case. He can’t run for president again, so what’s the harm of cashing in on celebrity? But reading further on the matter, I see that there are at least two problems with the deal:

        1. The big money might well be seen as a reward for not prosecuting any flesh-and-blood executives for the Wall Street crash that cratered the economy.
        2. It is also a precedent that can not be ignored by future presidents, an implicit promise that if they go easy on big money, they’ll be taken care-of after the fact.

        I was naive, so, thanks. Interestingly, I read a good article from WaPo that contains a fascinating excerpt from The Audacity of Hope, 2006, on just this situation. Seems to me that Barack has painted himself into a corner this time. I wonder if he will address his critics on it? Or, maybe he’ll donate to charity as you suggest.

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        • Jim,

          Thanks for this refreshing note. As one who has, over the years, changed his mind on several issues, sometimes I sit here and think I’m the only one who does. It’s nice to know others out there like you actually take the time to reexamine an initial reaction and demonstrate a willingness to alter a stance. I’d like to thank you, therefore.

          On Saturday morning I heard Joy Reid mention in passing, and in defense of Obama, that “every” president has cashed in the way Obama appears to be doing. I have heard that excuse many, many times now and it gets more disturbing every time I hear it. I saw Ruth Marcus on TV this morning discussing this issue and making the salient point: this was a great opportunity for President Obama to go against the tide and at least try to stop the “every president does it” tradition. No one was better positioned to make such a giant, moral statement than he was.

          Hopefully, with all the thoughtful criticism (and I’m not talking about the hypocritical vitriol from the right) he has received for agreeing to that outsize speaking fee, he will change his mind and do the right thing.

          Duane

           

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