Obama isn’t exactly hurting for money at the moment—he isn’t leaving the White House “dead broke” like the Clintons claimed they did. He and Michelle signed a $65 million book deal in January and, while he won’t get all of that money right away, the Obamas don’t have to worry about paying for Sasha and Malia’s tuition. This makes Obama’s decision to accept $400,000 from the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald to speak at a health care conference perplexing.
Yes, it’s easy money—the per hour rate is still much higher than the one that Crown is giving him for the memoir he’ll write. Yes, everybody is doing it—Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches played a role in her doomed presidential run and investment bankers were seemingly the only people who cared what former President George W. Bush had to say after he left office in 2009. But there’s no good reason for accepting the (again, very easy) money—and there’s plenty of reason to turn it down.
As Matt Yglesias wrote in Vox on Tuesday, by declining, “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.”
Obama is better-attuned to the mood of the country than Clinton was and, whatever he may think of the response to her Wall Street speeches, Obama is also a politician who has long valued symbolic acts and appealed to a common desire to transcend vulgar politics. Refusing to take a buttload of money from Wall Street would have done both—it would have elevated the political centrism that Obama has come to symbolize and made the case that politicians are listening to the people, not continuing the same crony cliquishness that got us into this political/economic/social/cultural mess in the first place.
Another possibility is that he’s not the barometer that many thought he was, and that this is another sign that the political establishment is out of touch. Obama’s reputation as someone who understands the political currents is partially a result of his carefully cultivated and controlled public image—a public image that will be weathered by the decision to accept a substantial amount of money from a Wall Street investment bank.