The Real Obama

What the president does in retirement will reveal his true self…

President Barack Obama speaks to the media in the Rose Garden of the White House on the ongoing crisis in Japan following massive earthquake and damage to nuclear reactors March 17, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The best thing about being an ex-president is that you can do whatever you want. Do you want to retire to the countryside to build henhouses and tootle around in your amphibious car? You can do that. Do you want to teach Sunday school and build houses for poor people, and maybe broker an occasional international peace agreement? You can do that also. Do you want to spend your days painting pictures of your dogs, your feet, and the soldiers you caused to be maimed? It’s an option! The retirement activities of presidents offer useful insights into their natures, because they are finally freed of all political constraints on their action. At liberty to pursue activities of their choosing, we get a sense for what they actually enjoy, and who they actually are.

During his two terms in office, Barack Obama’s most zealous devotees tended to explain away apparent failures or complacencies by referring to the constraints high office places on anyone who ascends to it. Even some critics on the left may have suspected that the deeds of Obama’s administration were out of sync with his natural instincts, that Obama was a man of high conscience weighed down or blunted by Washington’s leviathan bureaucracy, or frustrated by the exigencies of an unstable world.

Obama’s retirement should therefore finally give us meaningful insight into who he really is or, to put it another way, who he has been all along. The albatross of office finally lifted from his neck, America’s 44th president is now free to do anything and everything he desires without impediment. He can be the person he has always wanted to be, the person whom he has had to keep hidden away. Who, then, is the real Obama?

Well, it turns out the real Obama is quite like the one we knew already. And what he most wants to do is nestle himself cozily within the bosom of the global elite, and earn millions from behind a thinly-veiled philanthropic facade.

In January, Obama launched his post-presidential foundation with a board that consists of private equity executives, lobbyists, and an Uber advisor, tasking it to implement the world’s most meaningless mandate (“to inspire people globally to show up for the most important office in any democracy, that of citizen”). Able to choose his friends from out of anyone in the world, Obama has been seen kitesurfing with venture capital magnate Richard Branson (worth more than $5 billion) and brunching with Bono. (You can usually judge a person pretty well by their friends, and nobody who voluntarily spends his free time with Bono should be trusted.)

Obama’s recent forays into politics have also confirmed him as a friend to the elite. He used his last weeks in office to personally help derail the candidacy of left-wing congressman Keith Ellison for DNC chair. After Ellison became an early favorite in the race, Obama used his influence to recruit and boost the more centrist and less controversial Tom Perez, who won after a series of vile smears were launched against Ellison by influential party donors.

Obama also extended his influence overseas. Ahead of the first round of voting, he effectively endorsed French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who “wants to roll back state intervention in the economy, cut public-sector jobs, and reduce taxes on business and the ultra-rich.” (Macron also once responded to a union worker who needled him over his fancy suits by declaring that fancy suits accrue to those who work the hardest, an assertion that is manifestly false.)

Then there were the speeches. In December, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, asked what Obama should do with his post-presidency, had jokingly pleaded: “No speeches at Goldman Sachs, please.” After all, Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches had become the ultimate symbol of Democratic hypocrisy, a clear demonstration of how those who profess to oppose inequality will happily reap financial benefits from it. For Sullivan, it was laughable to think that a man like Obama, who maintained a public image characterized by modesty and personal integrity, would instantly lapse into the tawdry and unscrupulous Clinton practice of cashing in.

But then Obama cashed in. Mere weeks after leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue he signed on with the Harry Walker Agency (the very same outfit through which the Clintons have jointly pocketed a virtually incomprehensible $158 million on the speaker’s circuit). It was then revealed that he had been paid a whopping $400,000 fee by Cantor Fitzgerald a bond firm which deals in credit default swaps, the inscrutable instruments of financial alchemy that helped cause the 2008 financial meltdown. (After that came news of another $400,000 speaking fee.)

At the first sign of backlash against Obama’s pursuit of riches, media and political elites unleashed a torrent of toadyism in his defense. After expressing faint concern about Obama’s speaking fees, Amanda Marcotte chastised “people who’ve never had money worries” for casting judgement on “those who have,” elsewhere complaining: “The obsession with speaking fees is politics version of begrudging athlete salaries while ignoring owner profits” (an analogy that only holds up if Obama literally works for Wall Street). The Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen added: “If someone wants to pay Barack Obama $400,000 to give a speech I can’t think of a single reason why he shouldn’t take it…Obama is not doing anything wrong. He’s giving a speech. Nothing to apologize for.” It seemed that American liberalism’s eight year journey from  “Change We Can Believe In” to “Everybody Grifts…” was finally complete. (There is a fun game one can play with ideologically-committed Democrats that we might call “Rationalize That Injustice.” See if there are any right-wing policies that they won’t justify if told that Obama did them.)

Certain defenses of Obama opted for an explicitly racial framework. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah exclaimed “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? Fuck that, and fuck you!” April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, equated Obama’s critics with defenders of the slave trade. Attorney Imani Gandy, who litigated foreclosure cases on behalf of J.P. Morgan before becoming a prominent social justice activist on Twitter, seized upon the controversy to call antipathy towards Wall Street “the whitest shit I’ve ever heard.” This particular line of argumentation almost defied credulity, especially since critics of Obama’s speaking fees were simply extending a criticism originally applied to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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Obama and Branson enjoy the ocean together.

But while certain rationalizations of Obama’s conduct have ventured into burlesque satire, it is worth taking Michael Cohen’s question seriously: what’s so wrong with Obama doing a speech for money? He speaks, they pay, nobody gets hurt. What’s the actual harm? Since Obama isn’t actually in a position to give Wall Street any political favors, and since he’s a private citizen, why should it matter? Indeed, Debbie Wasserman Schultz told those who might be upset by the speech to “mind their own business.”

Well, first, there are some basic issues of personal ethics involved in post-presidential buckraking. There is something tawdry about immediately leaving office to go and make piles of money in any way you can, and it’s a short hop from doing your inspirational speaking schtick for corporate events to doing it in television commercials or at birthday parties for investment bankers’ teenage children. That’s why Harry Truman famously refused to serve on corporate boards, declaring that doing so would be undignified. (“I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”) And those who think Obama is being held to an impossible standard (that impossible “do good things rather than simply lucrative things” standard) should remember that Jimmy Carter has spent a productive and comparatively modest retirement writing, campaigning for the basic dignity of Palestinians, and quite regularly intervening to criticize American policy at home and abroad.

Some have said that as a “private citizen,” Obama’s choices of how to make money should be beyond moral scrutiny. But it’s private citizens who could use a lot more moral scrutiny. Obama’s choosing to become a mansion-dwelling millionaire is not wrong because he used to be the president, but because being exorbitantly rich in a time of great global poverty is heinously immoral. Moreover it defies credulity to suggest, as some have in earnest, that Obama needs to take money from this particular source. He is already guaranteed a lavish annual pension of more than $200,000 in addition to expenses and almost $400,000 in further pension money accrued from his time as an Illinois State Senator. He and the former First Lady have just signed the most sumptuous post-presidential book deal in history (worth $65 million, or almost 1500 times the median personal income) and will assuredly spend the next several decades enjoying a standard of material comfort few Americans have ever known, Wall Street speaking fees notwithstanding.

Finally, there’s the political hypocrisy. On the very same day as the infamous speech, Obama was elsewhere decrying the pernicious political influence of wealth, somberly declaring that “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.” Obama’s public posture has always been that he resents the political influence of special interests and financial elites, yet as both a political candidate and a private citizen they have showered him with money he has been only too happy to accept.

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Yet Michael Cohen is also partially right: the speech itself is not actually terribly important. It’s a mistake to focus on the personal ethics of Obama’s actual decision, and if we frame the relevant question as “Should Obama have taken the money?” then it’s easy to lapse into something of a shrug. So the guy wants to get rich. Fine. He’s no worse than every other member of the 1%. They’re all indefensible, and as long as nobody continues to maintain the illusion that Obama is any different from any other politician, there’s no reason to single him out as uniquely wicked. (One suspects, however, that some people do still maintain the illusion that Obama is different from other wealthy denizens of the political class.)

The most important aspect of the story is not that Obama accepted Cantor Fitzgerald’s offer, but that the offer was made in the first place. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the impression that certain powerful interests are now rewarding the former president with a gracious thanks for a job well done. Rather than asking whether Obama should have turned down the gig, we can ask: if his administration had taken aggressive legal and regulatory action against Wall Street firms following the financial crisis, would they be clamouring for him to speak and offering lucrative compensation mere weeks after his leaving office? It’s hard to think they would, and if a Democratic president has done their job properly, nobody on Wall Street should want to pay them a red cent in retirement. Obama’s decision to take Cantor Fitzgerald’s cash isn’t, therefore, some pivotal moment in which he betrayed his principles in the pursuit of lucre. It’s simply additional confirmation he has never posed a serious challenge to Wall Street’s outsized economic power.

In fact, we’ve known that for as long as we’ve known Obama. He was popular on Wall Street back when he first ran for president. According to Politico, he “raised more money from Wall Street through the Democratic National Committee and his campaign account than any politician in American history,” and in just one year “raked in more cash from bank employees, hedge fund managers and financial services companies than all Republican candidates combined.”

Serious economic progressives did not become disillusioned with Obama when he accepted $400,000 for a speech, but when he arrived in office at the apex of the financial crisis and immediately stuffed his cabinet and advisory team with a coterie of alumni from Goldman Sachs (a top donor to this campaign in 2008). At the height of the worst financial catastrophe since the Great Depression, during a time of unique (and completely warranted) antipathy towards rapacious corporate interests, Obama had been elected with the single greatest mandate to implement sweeping change in recent political history. Given the same extraordinary kind of political demand, FDR took the opportunity to proclaim that “The old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering…they are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

But when Obama was faced with a similar moment of calamity and possibility, he opted instead for the avenues of brokerage and appeasement. He chose not to push for criminal prosecutions of financial executives whose greed and negligence caused the 2008 economic crash. In 1999, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, had proposed the concept of “collateral consequences” (colloquially known as “too big to jail”), whereby “the state could pursue non-criminal alternatives for companies if they believed prosecuting them might result in too much ‘collateral’ damage” to the economy. Thus, when banking giant HSBC was revealed to be laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda, Obama’s Justice Department allowed the bank to escape with a fine and no criminal charges, on the grounds that a prosecution might damage HSBC too much and have wider effects on the economy. Top prosecutors had evidence of serious wrongdoing by HSBC, but Holder prevented them from proceeding. A report prepared for the House Financial Services Committee concluded that Holder “overruled an internal recommendation by DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section to prosecute HSBC because of DOJ leadership’s concern that prosecuting the bank would have serious adverse consequences on the financial system.” Yet Holder later falsely suggested that the decision was made by the prosecutors rather than himself. (“Do you think that these very aggressive US attorneys I was proud to serve with would have not brought these cases if they had the ability?”) One should note just how unjust the “collateral consequences” idea is: it explicitly creates separate systems of justice for rich and poor, because there will always be more economic consequences to prosecuting major banking institutions than individual poor people. The same crime will therefore carry two different sets of consequences depending on how much you matter to the economy.

Holder also institutionalized the practice of extrajudicial settlements, under which “there was no longer any opportunity for judges or anyone else to check the power of the executive branch to hand out financial indulgences” to corporate offenders. Thus even as guilty pleas were extracted from banks and financiers for crimes ranging from fraud, manipulation, and bribery to money laundering and tax evasion, not a single malefactor from Wall Street ended up behind bars. (Meanwhile, America’s prisons remained full of less economically consequential people who had been convicted of the same crimes.)

Obama’s politics were the same when it came to policy-making. After several years of sustained corporate pushback, aided by both the White House and Congress, the much-touted Dodd-Frank law was whittled down to the status of a mild and extremely tenuous reform. A similar pattern inflected Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the now-precarious Affordable Care Act. While undoubtedly improving on the horrific status quo in American health care, Obamacare was notably soft on the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, both of which were extensively consulted during its composition. Far from being the Stalinist caricature of Tea Party fever dreams, Obamacare was based on plan put in place by a Republican governor and sketched out by the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s. No matter how much the American right may distort the record, Obamacare was essentially a massive corporate giveaway (after all, it mandated that millions of people become new insurance customers), and it manifestly failed to tackle the crux of the problem with US healthcare, which is that market actors are involved in the provision of health insurance to begin with. Obama arguably had the votes to create a public option that would have ameliorated matters somewhat, even without his having made any serious attempt at exerting political pressure in favor of one. But instead, he opted to needlessly compromise with the very corporate actors who stand between Americans and the guarantee of healthcare as a right.

This consistently pro-business approach has ensured that Obama isn’t the only administration official that corporate America has showered with gratitude. For plenty of Obama’s top lieutenants, the revolving door between Wall Street and the corridors of the US government has kept spinning continuously. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and former senior advisor, now works for Uber. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is executive vice-president at McDonalds, lobbying hard against raising the minimum wage. Eric Holder, who had left the white-collar defense outfit Covington & Burling to become attorney general, returned in 2015 to once again represent many of the same banks and financial firms he had ostensibly been charged with regulating and prosecuting while in office. (Covington had literally been keeping Holder’s office waiting for him. “This is home for me,” Holder said of the corporate firm.) And having presided over massive bailouts during his tenure running the US Treasury, Timothy Geithner headed to Wall Street to take up a lucrative gig at private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

This is why Matthew Yglesias was wrong to characterize Barack Obama’s speaking fee as a betrayal of “everything [he] believes in.” In fact, it was the exact opposite: totally consistent with everything he has always stood for. The point isn’t that he’s “sold out.” It’s that, when the soaring cadences and luminous rhetoric are stripped away, Obama never offered any transformative change to begin with. Thus his $400,000 speech matters, not because it represents a deviation from the norm, or a venal lapse in personal ethics, but because it conveniently demonstrates a pattern that has been there all along.

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In the Obama presidency, many liberals found the embodiment of their political ideal: an administration of capable, apparently well-intentioned people with impeccable Ivy League credentials, fronted by a person of undeniable charisma and charm, and with a beautiful and photogenic family to boot.

But examining Obama seriously requires acknowledging the fundamental limits of his brand of politics: a liberalism that continues to trade in the language of social concern while remaining invested in the very institutions undergirding the poverty and injustice it tells us it exists to fight; see, e.g., the upper-middle-class liberals who decry educational inequities while sending their own children to private schools. Like the Davos billionaires who “fret about inequality over vintage wine and canapés,” Obama denounces money in politics but can’t keep himself from taking it. And because he’s such a part of the very elite system whose effects he abhors, “Obamaism” was always destined to be a fundamentally empty and insincere philosophy.

Matt Taibbi issued a prescient assessment of Obama all the way back in 2007, when it was still unclear who would win the Democratic presidential primary:

“The Illinois Senator is the ultimate modern media creature—he’s a good-looking, youthful, smooth-talking, buttery-warm personality with an aw-shucks demeanor who exudes a seemingly impenetrable air of Harvard-crafted moral neutrality… His entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind…[He appears] as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view…His political ideal is basically a rehash of the Blair-Clinton “third way” deal, an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle….In short, Obama is a creature perfectly in tune with the awesome corporate strivings of Hollywood, Madison avenue and the Beltway—he tries, and often succeeds, at selling a politics of seeking out the very center of where we already are, the very couch where we’ve been sitting all this time, as an exciting, revolutionary journey into the unknown.”

The real tragedy of the Obama story is that in 2008, millions of desperate Americans cast votes for a presidential candidate they believed would fight for meaningful change. He successfully marketed “hope” and “change” to a country that was reeling from a horrific financial collapse (his 2008 presidential run even won a “Marketing Campaign of the Year” award from the ad industry, beating out Apple and Zappos). But beneath it all was no serious vision of change; the grand speeches, paid and unpaid, turn out to contain little more than well-crafted platitudes. (Christopher Hitchens once pointed out that while everyone considered Obama a powerful and memorable speaker, nobody could ever seem to remember a single specific line from any of his orations, a good sign he’d in fact said nothing at all.) And as Obama biographer David Garrow concludes, “while the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.”

But Obama’s weaknesses are not the product of some unique personal pathology. He is simply the most charismatic and successful practitioner of an ideology shared by many contemporary Democrats: a kind of Beltway liberalism that sacrifices nearly all real political ambition, espousing a rhetoric of compassion and transformation while rationalizing every form of amorality and capitulation as a pragmatic necessity. In a moment when militancy and moral urgency are needed most, it seeks only innocuous, technocratic change and claims with the smuggest certitude that this represents the best grown adults can aspire to. In a world of spiralling inequality and ascendant corporate tyranny, it insists on weighting equally the interests of all sides and deems the result a respectable democratic consensus. Bearing witness to entrenched human misery, it wryly declares it was ever thus and delights in lazily dismissing critics with scornful refrains like “That will never get through Congress…” Confronted with risk or danger, it willingly retreats to ever more conservative ground and calls the sum total of these maneuvers “incrementalism.” In place of a coherent vision or a clear program of reform, the best it can offer is the hollow sensation of progress stripped of all its necessary conflicts and their corresponding discomforts.

One could see, in the defenses of Obama’s Wall Street speech, just how far this ideology narrows our sense of the possible: it tells us it is unrealistic and unfair to conceive of a president who does not shamelessly use the office to enrich himself. What passes for pragmatism is in fact the most dispiriting kind of capitalist pessimism: this is your world, you’re stuck with it, and it’s madness to dream of anything better. There Is No Alternative.

We can almost respect Hillary Clinton for embracing this idea openly, and barely even pretending to represent our most elevated selves rather than our most acquisitive ones. The cruelty Obama perpetrated was to encourage people to believe in something better, then give them nothing but a stylized status quo. At least now that he’s windsurfing with billionaires and doing the Wall Street speaking tour, there’s no longer any reason to keep believing that underneath it all, he was a true idealist whose innermost desires were thwarted by crushing political realities. All along, his innermost desire was to meet Bono over eggs benedict.

The Obama of 2008 was to be this century’s FDR, signifying a moment of lasting realignment and transcendent progress rather than one of growing alienation and despair culminating in the election of Donald Trump. But the liberalism of 21st century America, it turns out, is ill-equipped to achieve the transformative change it once so loftily promised: not because it made a noble attempt and failed but because it never really sought this change to begin with.

While Obama may not have been sincere, a great many of his voters were, and the millions who embraced his message revealed a genuine hunger for transformative change.

Now all we need is a political movement that actually seeks it out.