President Barack Obama was recently paid a lavish sum of money to speak to a Wall Street firm. Obama, like many former presidents, can do as he pleases in regard to speaking to wealthy elites in exchange for large amounts of money, but it should be noted these speeches come at the cost of the integrity of the office he once held, and his own credibility.
As reported by The Guardian, Obama was paid $400,000 in speaking fees from a Wall Street bond firm that engages in credit default swaps, which were “the fancy financial instruments that helped trigger the 2008 financial meltdown.” Obama has rallied against financial inequality painting himself as a defender of the common man, stating in a speech reported by Politico that he’s “making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President,” yet here he is taking a paycheck from an institution that is part of the larger system that has come to represent excess and greed. Can Obama continue to advocate for the needs of the 99 percent while accepting large checks from the one percent?
As reported by The New York Times Obama is starting a foundation aimed at “training and elevating a new generation of political leaders in America,” but what message is Obama sending to the next generation through this extravagant speech?
The Guardian was correct in pointing out that Democrats “kowtowing” to wealthy elites left them “morally bankrupt,” citing Hillary Clinton as an example of a public figure damaged by giving expensive speeches. It can be argued that Clinton’s Wall Street speeches contributed to her loss in the election as it painted her as being aligned with elites and not the people. Obama, in giving this speech, risks being seen like Clinton and other democrats, as out of touch with the common man.
Former president Harry Truman put it best when it came to accepting lucrative financial offers once no longer president by saying that “any transaction, however respectable … would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
This is not to say that presidents should completely refrain from all financial transactions once out of office. Truman himself sold his memoirs for a large amount of money, though a line should be drawn when it comes to blatantly using one’s status as former president to accumulate large amounts of wealth.
Obama is not the first former president to cash in on the presidency. Bill Clinton has accumulated up to $40 million in speaking fees, Ronald Reagan gathered $2 million from delivering two speeches in Japan, and George H.W. Bush also earned millions from his public speaking.
Each of these instances, no matter the circumstances, commercialize the prestige and dignity of the presidency. This overall damages the office, making a once honored position just another path to a quick paycheck.
Former presidents accepting speaking fees, though at first appearing harmless, does damage the credibility of the office of the presidency. What is an individual supposed to make of a president who says one thing while in office, but suddenly appears to align himself with interest he rallied against once he is out of office? Additionally, dignity is a trait most believe presidents should maintain throughout their life, but how can the public respect the office of the president when its former occupants appear to be using it to make a quick buck?
Some say that presidents have no other choice but to engage in these transactions. After all, what are they supposed to do when they are out of office? This is a fair concern, but one must remember, as cited in The New York Times, presidents now “receive a lavish pension — $186,000, increased yearly — payable as soon as they depart the White House, regardless of their age.” In addition, presidents are also given financial assistance when it comes to staff, offices, and travel.
Former presidents are in their full legal rights to engage in whatever transactions they desire since they are no longer in public office. Still, just because one can do something does not mean one should. Former presidents should show greater respect for the office they once held, and Obama should keep his credibility in mind when it comes to pricey speeches.