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The Barack Obama Standard

Many a critical eyebrow was raised after erstwhile President Barack Obama accepted $400,000 from Cantor Fitzgerald to speak at a health conference. That’s a lot of money for a single speech, and from Wall Street, no less. Fox Business News chided Obama questioning whether he is “Wall Street’s Newest Fat Cat” — recalling Obama’s own words on CBS in 2009 — “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street.”

Many were quick to defend Obama’s new relationship with Wall Street, pointing to other former presidents who deliver speeches for hefty sums. Obama is no different, only more marketable, they say. Obama appears to be held to a different standard, and many reasonably assume that racism the underlying cause. One of my Facebook friends posted in frustration, “Make that $$$$$$$ Barack! Nobody else stopped at $60 mil. Build you a dynasty like the Rockefellers and Bush’s so we can see that family values, wit, education and hard work can make it happen.”

Why is Barack Obama held to a different standard?

Standards are organic -– they evolve. Thomas Jefferson wrote “I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service, and of retiring with hands clean as they are empty.” Easy for him to say, he had inherited wealth. Yet, there is a historical implication, and standard set, that the presidency was not to be a path toward wealth but, if anything, a step away from it. The greater reward was in the honor of public service.

That was then, this is now. No one blinks at the premise that the presidency is a springboard to greater wealth. To the contrary it is a given that the best time to cash in on the presidency is immediately after leaving office. Obama and his wife, Michelle, are off to a running start with the Penguin Random House book deal with a reported $65 million advance. Those who respect the Obamas look forward to their inspiring and relevant books. The jaw-dropping advance is admired as a transparent, arms-length relationship with a publisher, a reflection of their success.

Yet, isn’t the Wall Street connection the real crux of criticism? It is hard to imagine that Obama could have been blind to the criticism that would ensue from accepting a ginormous fee from Cantor Fitzgerald. He surely couldn’t forget that Hillary Rodham Clinton was skewered for accepting a $225,000 fee from Goldman Sachs. Bernie Sanders used this fact so successfully in his campaign against her that Obama’s own Democratic Party revised its platform to specifically include “reining in Wall Street.”

Carlos Lozada highlights in his review of Rising Star by David J. Garrow that Obama is a man for whom “Every step – whether his foray in community organizing, Harvard Law School, even his choice of whom to love – was not just about living a life but about fulfilling a destiny.” What was Obama thinking when negotiating the Cantor Fitzgerald speech? What destiny was he trying to fulfill?

Perhaps he recalled George W. Bush saying that the first thing he would do after leaving office was to replenish “the ol’ coffers”. Within two years, Bush earned $15 million in speeches, delivered at $100,000-150,000 a pop. Still, Bush could not best Bill Clinton who, with Hillary, earned nearly $154 million in speech income between 2001-2015. Was it Obama’s ego that compelled him to risk his reputation for that $400,000 (a small fee in comparison to his book advance)? Or once he recognized that any fee from Wall Street would result in criticism, did that justify negotiating the highest fee, ever?

Perhaps Obama intended the fee to be destined for greater things – take from the rich and give to the poor. Indeed, the Obamas just announced a $1 million charitable gift to support One Summer Chicago, a youth employment program. Should the standard we apply to earning speech income now be based on the “give back”? Oddly, CNN’s Van Jones straddled the fence, faulting Obama only with not conducting a “poverty tour” first. Really, Van? The standard can’t just be about optics.

Though they might not want to admit it, many progressive Democrats silently disapprove of Obama’s Wall Street foray. They deflect our attention elsewhere – pointing to Trump and family unabashedly and prematurely using that presidential springboard to wealth, while in office. Yes, we need to keep our eyes on the road, but Trump’s actions should not shield Obama from valid criticism if warranted.

Perhaps we should wait to hear what Obama has to say at the September 2017 health conference. If Obama delivers a real game-changing, impactful, brimstone and fire speech to legislators and Wall Street bankers, maybe the criticism of him as sidling up to the fat cats will be found unwarranted. If so, the standard for accepting fees from Wall Street will adapt to include the significance of the speechifying. However, some may still scratch their heads and wonder, why does any president have to be paid to speak to a large health conference when this is among the leading issues of our time and, presumably, an issue near and dear to his heart?

Let’s face it – for Republicans and racists, there is no standard Obama can meet. Interested only in erasing his legacy, it doesn’t matter to them if the fee is small or large, paid by Wall Street or the Salvation Army. Ironically, it is the people who hold Obama in the highest esteem who are most relevant to determining whether he is meeting our standards. The more they revere him, the more they should expect much of him. It should be OK for Obama supporters to find this substantial fee from Wall Street questionable, if not disturbing, and to worry about his legacy as he writes it going forward.

In a recent sermon (on Parshat Shemini), Rabbi Vernon H. Kurtz of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL, discussed the responsibilities of biblical leadership. In Torah, Moses and his brother Aaron are judged by a Higher Authority. The standards were very high, the punishments severe. Clearly assuming the mantle of leadership does not just provide glory, it can be daunting and a heavy weight. Rabbi Kurtz summarized the great responsibilities of any leader, from Moses to a parent. “Yes, we are all leaders, we are heroes to many people. That creates for us a great challenge to live up to the highest standards and serve as exemplars of model behavior…it is our task to live up to the challenges of leadership recognizing that though we may not be perfect, we have to do the best that we can under all circumstances.”

Let’s wait to hear what Obama has to say when he delivers his speech this September. Then we can determine if he met or exceeded the Obama Standard.


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