Before I get to what Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders got right and wrong about former President Obama’s big Wall Street speech paydays, here’s a personal note. I have headed a non-profit public advocacy and education foundation for more than a decade, and in that time, every penny that I have received from speaking fees, appearances, and other public activities, have been turned over to the foundation to boost our donor program. Not one penny has been taken for personal use or profit.
The instant word leaked that Obama would nab a big payday from Cantor-Fitzgerald for a speech in September and another $400,000 for speaking to advertisers at an A&E function, the loud screams were that Obama was shamelessly and even hypocritically profiteering off his name, reputation and former position to enrich himself. There was little said that he’d put much, if not all, of the heavy-duty cash he received back into the public education and leadership training foundation he has set up. Former presidents and other big name public figures and celebrities often do exactly that with foundations they establish. But that’s a detail that’s almost never mentioned in the rush to tag them as greed merchants selling their name for big bucks.
Now Warren and Sanders didn’t use those words to blast Obama for taking Wall Street and big corporate cash, they took the high road and merely said that it set a terrible example by pandering to Wall Street and big corporate donors. The very people and element that Obama from time to time lambasted and sparred and jostled with in trying to somewhat tighten regulations and toughen oversight over Wall Street.
They have an arguable case on this point. Obama did often preach about the evils of a financial industry that makes its own rules, skirts, ignores and openly subverts the minimal regulations imposed on it, and rakes in billions in profit with a storehouse of taxpayer backed goodies. Wall Street banks and investments houses are both the symbol and reality of the worst of the worst of financial and corporate abuses. Yet, here is their one-time, White House antagonist taking their money. It just didn’t look and feel right and the way to make it look and feel right was for Obama to do what other former White Houses occupants didn’t do, namely the Clintons, and that’s just say no to the hefty corporate dollars dangled in front of him. Obama could have done that, but it would not have registered the slightest tick on Wall Street’s dollar scales. It would not make Wall Street pause for a nano-second in its relentless, and never ending war against the Dodd-Frank and other financial regulations.
Obama is now a private citizen and he has absolutely no power to influence any of the doings in Congress, let alone the White House. But Warren and Sanders, as populist senators, are the ones who can parry the assault by the financial industry on the regulations, relentlessly publicly expose and excoriate Wall Street for its financial conniving and manipulation, and rally Democrats to stand tough against Trump and the GOP’s plan to scrap Dodd-Frank regulations. This is where their fight is and will continue to be, not with Obama for being paid a sum that amounts to pocket change for a major Wall Street firm.
It’s also assumed that a public figure who speaks before a Wall Street or corporate audience just by their appearance puts their stamp of approval on the dealings of the financial industry. But that’s not why a financial group will pay a stiff fee for a noted public figure to speak to them. They are there because they are as a media and public draw, and to enhance the name and prestige of the company shelling out the fee. It is not expecting scripted and saccharine praise but to discuss the very tough issues and criticisms that businesses have become accustomed to hearing from Warren and Sanders. The likelihood is that Cantor-Fitzgerald will hear those same criticisms from Obama in his speech.
To their credit, Sanders and Warren did not say that Obama should not accept the $400,000 from Cantor-Fitzgerald, or any other amount of money offered from any other Wall Street outfit. That would be presumptuous at best, and meddling at worst. Obama will be a hot ticket commodity on the speaking circuit for a long time to come. There will undoubtedly be more high fee offerings to speak before a variety of public and even financial groups. And there will also be requests for him to speak before groups that can’t pay him a nickel, but are groups that he believes in their cause. Of course, these freebie Obama speeches won’t be mentioned, since there’s no chance to manufacture a controversy at his expense with them. Obama’s taking money from Wall Street won’t change Wall Street, that’s Warren and Sanders’ fight.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the new ebook How the Democrats Can Win in The Trump Era (Amazon Kindle). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.