Obama can cash in on speeches, but he should use them to make his case

Matt Bai
Former President Barack Obama at a community event on the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago on Wednesday. (Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)

This weekend, the John F. Kennedy library will present its annual Profile in Courage Award to Barack Obama. Which is slightly awkward, since a bunch of influential liberals have voiced doubt in recent days about what the library calls Obama’s “enduring commitment to democratic ideals.”

Specifically, leaders of the Democratic Party’s populist uprising — most notably the Senate’s chief scolds, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — are displeased that Obama is taking $400,000 from the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald for a speech about health care. The New York Times editorial board called Obama’s decision “disheartening” and “jarring.”

Obama, after all, was supposed to be spending his post-presidency doing community organizing or speaking out against poverty, or some other vaguely inspirational thing like that. Cashing in is what Clintons do.

Personally, I don’t really care if Obama jaws for dollars. I can’t imagine why he needs the money, since the Obamas are reported to be getting north of $60 million just to write a couple of books, but hey, he served his country admirably, and he’s probably got his eye on some pricey property in Palm Springs, so that’s up to him.

No, my issue with Obama is that he won’t push back against the class baiting and anti-globalism in his own party at the same time. Go ahead and take the Wall Street money if you want, but at least make the case that underlies it.

It’s tricky to navigate, this business of being an ex-president. We now have five formers running around out there like characters from “Night at the Museum,” and three of them left office well before their 60th birthday. It’s not an easy thing to figure out how to exist meaningfully in the world for a quarter century or more after you’ve already reached history’s pinnacle, all the while trying to uphold your lifestyle, enhance your legacy and stay out of your successors’ way.

The youngest ex-president in history, Teddy Roosevelt, was 50 when he left office, and four years later, after a brief disappearance to Africa, he was running for the office again. (He died at 60.) Harry Truman, who left the White House at 68, lived off a meager Army pension and some cobbled-together money from book sales and land deals; it’s because of him that presidents now get lifetime stipends and funding for their libraries.

If there’s one theme that seems to run through most modern post-presidencies, though, it’s a kind of atonement, or at least an acknowledgment of regret. Jimmy Carter started this, really, transforming himself into a tireless elder statesman after having feebly presided over an economic and global unraveling.

Bill Clinton has spent most of the last 16 years plunging into health crises around the world, trying frantically to outrun the tawdriness of his second term and his inaction in the face of genocide. George W. Bush quietly paints portraits of soldiers, as if to exorcise the ghosts of Iraq.

Obama isn’t really the type to spend a lot of time indulging what-ifs, and his essential failure as president is harder to pinpoint. You could say his legacy is marred by not having managed to elect his chosen successor, but really, he didn’t have a whole lot to do with that.

You could argue, credibly, that Obama left the world less stable than he found it, or the economy more bifurcated. But here he confronted larger currents that were hard, if not impossible, for any administration to divert. Historians won’t punish him for coming up short.

What history will remember with less magnanimity, I think, is the rise of reactionary, partisan ideologies that flourished under Obama’s watch. He came to power promising to turn the generational page on the boomers’ hardened divisions and stale arguments, but somehow he left us a country that was more fractured, more frightened and more backward-looking than he found it.

This is obviously most pronounced on the conservative side, where a dark, xenophobic strain of populist fury expanded its hold during the Obama years, waiting to be exploited by a consummate opportunist like Donald Trump.

But the anti-globalism tremor isn’t strictly a conservative phenomenon. Although liberals wouldn’t like to see it this way, their own populist revolt — which took hold after the economic collapse of 2008 and is now personified by the oldsters Warren and Sanders — overlaps with Trumpism in significant ways.

The resurgent left, too, reflexively castigates financiers and free trade, offering up the well-worn and simplistic idea that taxes and tariffs — along with yet more federal spending — will somehow take the economy back to its industrial apex.

Obama knows better. He fought valiantly for his Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major gambit to establish America’s economic dominance in Asia. (The populist left applauded Trump when he pulled the plug on that.) Behind the scenes, Obama sought a comprehensive budget deal that would have slowed the growth of government programs and reduced deficits.

Obama successfully pushed to rein in the excesses of Wall Street, but he resisted calls for putative measures like breaking up banks, which is probably why he raised more money from the financial sector than any other presidential candidate in history.

And yet, rather than openly confront the reactionary movement in his own party, Obama repeatedly tried to co-opt it. He murmured insincere indictments of the “fat cats” on Wall Street and ran a reelection campaign that sometimes seemed only about raising taxes on the rich — a manifestly worthy idea, but hardly the basis for an economic policy.

When Warren and her compatriots tried to kill the Asian trade pact in 2015, Obama responded cautiously. “Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” he told me in an interview then, but after that brief skirmish, he backed off. When Sanders ran for president on an anti-trade, anti-finance platform, Obama maintained his public neutrality.

What you can see now, though, stepping back from it all, is that Obama’s inherent reticence emboldened a wave of retro politics in his own party, the effects of which may not be fully realized until 2020. It’s increasingly a populist party, arrayed against Obama’s globalist vision, organized around social justice on one hand and economic vengeance on the other.

So if Obama’s going to take heaps of Wall Street money now, he should also take the opportunity this weekend to do what no other leader in the party seems to have the spine or the standing to do, which is to lay out the alternative to populist rage. He should remind liberals that capital isn’t inherently corrupt, that you expand new industries only by expanding markets, that you can’t very well claim to care about poor people and then oppose the very policies that create middle classes all over the globe.

If Obama’s goal is to get even wealthier than he already is, then he should advance the out-of-fashion idea that wealth in itself isn’t the enemy of progress. Nostalgia and demagoguery are.

That would be a true profile in courage, even if half the audience didn’t applaud.

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