How Obama Could End Criticism Of His Wall Street Speech

The faster he swears he'll release the text of his speech, the better for him politically.
05/01/2017 07:47 pm ET Updated May 01, 2017
Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters

Barack Obama caused somewhat of a tizzy last week, when it was announced he would be giving a speech to some bastions of Wall Street, for a cool $400,000 speaking fee. Some were simply aghast at the idea, for a couple of different reasons. But there’s one way Obama could make most of the criticism disappear (at least that portion coming from the left), and that is by making one simple promise. If Obama pledged to immediately release the transcript of his speech right after he gave it, he could defuse a lot of the angst the idea is causing among progressives. The speech reportedly won’t be given until September, so Obama isn’t facing an immediate deadline; but the faster he swears he’ll release the text of his speech, the better for him politically.

Obama has somewhat of a mixed record with Wall Street. It didn’t get a lot of media focus initially, but Obama raised record-setting amounts of funding from Wall Street during his presidential campaigns. Most voters were so swept up in the hope and change and “Yes, we can!” that they didn’t pay much attention to the mountains of cash Obama’s campaign was raking in from Wall Street. Balancing that is the fact that Obama signed the Dodd/Frank bill, which was the biggest Wall Street reform package in decades. It wasn’t perfect (what legislation is?), but Obama also saw the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during his presidency as well (although Elizabeth Warren rightfully gets the lion’s share of this credit). Obama accepted generous donations from Wall Street while also taking big steps to reform the worst of their abuses ― in other words, a mixed record at best.

This is one of the reasons why some people were taken aback at the idea of Obama personally cashing in from speaking to the Wall Street fatcats. It just sounded so... unseemly, somehow. In an age when Progressivism is on the rise in the Democratic Party, this appeared to be a big step back to the bad old ways of Wall Street-friendly Democratic centrism (see: Bill Clinton’s D.L.C., for instance). It also reopened the wounds of the 2016 Democratic primary race, where Hillary Clinton refused to admit exactly what she’d said to the Wall Street fatcats (also for large sums of money).

Then there was criticism that (pun intended, sadly) was quite a bit darker. Some pearl-clutchers inside the Beltway were shocked ― shocked! ― that any politician would ever do anything so crass as to make money off their political fame. At least, that’s what they said (sample Washington Post headline: “Is $60 Million Really Not Enough For The Obamas?”). This, however, didn’t go over well with a certain segment of the population, who countered with: “So let me get this straight ― the first black president is also supposed to be the first one who somehow isn’t allowed to make money after leaving the White House? Is that really what you’re saying?!?” I’ll leave these “Obama wants to make money ― how extraordinary!” criticisms alone, because I think those who are currently pushing back against them are already doing a fine job of doing so, and thus need no help from me.

Instead, I think Obama addressing the criticisms of giving a speech to any Wall Street group (some have suggested he do a “poverty tour” instead, which would be oh-so-progressive) is actually pretty easy to do. All it would take for Obama to silence his critics would be to release a statement saying something along the lines of the following:

I will never stop speaking truth to power ― that’s a promise I intend to keep for the rest of my life. Some have criticized me for accepting an invitation to speak to a group of Wall Street bankers. Much like those who wanted to bar Ann Coulter from speaking to students at Berkeley, though, their thinking seems to be that each speaker must always be a perfect ideological match with the audience he or she is speaking to. I reject such thinking, because if we only preach to the choir, how is anyone going to ever change anyone else’s mind? I will speak to whomever I choose, but I will not adjust or compromise my principles when doing so. To this end, I have directed the agency which handles my bookings to insert a clause in my standard speaker’s contract to allow me to publicly release a transcript of my remarks, right after I give them in person. So after I give a speech to Wall Street, you’ll be able to read exactly what I said to them ― and that’s a promise. I think what people will find is that when I prepare a speech for such a crowd, I do not tailor my message to them or water down my principles in any way. I hope this will bring an end to any controversy about my speeches.

In one fell swoop, Obama could silence the substantial criticisms currently being lobbed against him. The only potential drawback would be if the group decided it wasn’t going to pay for a speech that would then be released to the public. But I doubt this would happen. After all, the public’s interest in this speech is already very high, months in advance. If Obama were allowed to release the transcript, it would continue to be big and highly-anticipated news. Just in terms of advertising value alone, that should be well worth it for the group inviting him, I would think.

Obama making such an announcement would, of course, be a big slap in the face to Hillary Clinton. This cannot be avoided. Her insistence to never reveal what she had told Wall Street audiences cost her dearly with the Democratic voting base. She already had trust issues, and many Bernie Sanders voters just flat-out didn’t believe her apparent newfound love of Populism. The secret speech transcripts just reinforced this perception, whether it was fair or not. “What does she tell the fatcats behind closed doors, that she refuses to own up to later?” everyone wondered.

But so be it. Obama should be allowed to set his own standards for his career as a paid speaker. And Clinton certainly can’t complain too much about Obama cashing in post-presidency, since she and her husband have so successfully done so for almost two decades now. That’s not a criticism directed at her or Bill per se, since they were merely following the same path every president since Ronald Reagan has lucratively followed. It is what ex-presidents do, in the modern era. The only president who remained above this money-grubbing fray that I can recall is Jimmy Carter, who decided to go build houses for the poor after his presidency. Hard to criticize that.

Barack Obama can come out of this controversy smelling like a rose. By publicly pledging to release the transcript, he successfully counters criticism that he’s secretly sucking up to Wall Street. By writing a speech full of vim and vigor which takes Wall Street to task for some of their continuing abuses, Obama would be going into the lions’ den and speaking truth to power (and all the rest of the clichés). Reading such a speech would cause progressive hearts to soar, in fact. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren might end up praising Obama for the boldness of his speech, in the end. By showing he’s got nothing to hide when it comes to speaking to Wall Street, Obama could wind up increasing his already-high stature within the Democratic Party. That seems worth inserting a single clause into his standard speaking contract for any and all groups he speaks to in the future.

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

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