3 Ways Obama Should Spend His Wall Street Money

“Insiders don’t criticize insiders,” Larry Summers once advised Elizabeth Warren. Summers wore many insider hats of impressive couture: White House economist, hedge fund adviser, president of Harvard, and Treasury Secretary.  

Warren, a lawyer and professor, was a budding power player herself, a crusader for government transparency with a radical critique of Wall Street and a growing public profile. Summers recognized Warren’s talent and respected her politics. He was just offering friendly advice. He was saying, if you want to get ahead in Washington, if you want to get to the circle of power, you won't succeed by crossing other high-achieving power players.  

Inside the Beltway, this qualifies as excellent advice, time-tested and almost always true, at least in the narrowest political sense.


All of which raises questions about President Obama’s decision to accept a $400,000 speaking fee to keynote a Wall Street health care conference: will any Democratic Party insiders criticize the ex-president who, even in Trump-era retirement, qualifies as an insider?

Fox News exulted at the Democrats' dilemma, asking, what will Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say? (In a Sirius XM radio appearance on Thursday, the outsider Warren allowed she was "troubled." So is Sanders.)

Liberal angels are rushing in where presidential hopefuls fear to tread. Red meat for the conservative media is steak tartare for liberal pundits.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake offered four good reasons why the optics of a $400K Wall Street payday may not play well in Breitbart and Peoria.

The Huffington Post reminds us that taking a fat speaking fee is "completely in character" for Obama. Zach Carter notes that the ex-president is the pure product of the Wall Street meritocracy. Too true!

Wall Street Bromance

Unlike Warren, Obama took Summers’ advice to heart as he worked his way toward the presidency in 2007 and '08. After he arrived in the White House, Obama didn’t prosecute anyone on Wall Street for the ruinous crash that devastated the American middle class because his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, his new friend and fellow insider, said not to. Geithner thought prosecution of shady entrepreneurs, no matter how shady, would spook the markets and spoil the recovery. 

So HuffPo is right that Obama’s return to Wall Street in 2017 has been greased by his forbearance in 2009. For Obama to move against Wall Street when he took office would have required crossing fellow insiders, so he wouldn't do it. He avoided the economic catastrophe, at least in the short term, by deferring to the culture of insider impunity, as articulated by Larry Summers.

Now a multimillionaire, Obama can plausibly (and comfortably) argue that the bargain wasn’t corrupt, merely practical. He was rewarded with enough political capital to pass Obamacare and enough of a recovery to secure his reelection.

Maybe. But deferring to the culture of insider impunity inflicted a high cost. By the time Obama’s presidency was over, his heir-apparent Hillary Clinton was depicted, not unfairly, as the embodiment of that culture. It was no small reason why she proceeded to suffer a humiliating defeat to a buffoon. One of Donald Trump’s only redeeming qualities was his rhetorical hostility to the culture of insider impunity. 

Boo Birds

Matt Yglesias declaims that Obama's speaking fee "undermines everything he believes in." In his Vox article, Yglesias expresses hopes that Obama donates his fee to "some good cause," which is how this kerfuffle will likely end. 

Obama is too canny not to respond to the boo-birds in liberal bleachers. I predict a donation to a worthy organization and an oh-so-patient lecture about the insanity of the 24/7 news cycle, along with some ruminations about how the arc of history bends toward insurance pools. That would be in character, and not entirely unwelcome.

You don't have to harbor a Bloombergian reverence for the "channels of communication between finance and centrist politics" to feel all the indignation, left and right, might be a wee premature.

Obama doesn’t have to personally defend his decision to take Cantor Fitzgerald’s money, especially since his appearance has not yet been publicly announced by his hosts. That would be rude, among other things. He did send out a spokesperson to give a brief and unconvincing rationalization for taking the money, but the former president can be forgiven for avoiding polemics with left-wing and right-wing reporters. Many normal citizens do. 

And maybe, just maybe, Obama has a political trick up his sleeve. That would be in character, too. If, come September, the ex-president uses his visit to Wall Street to defend Obamacare from Republican vandals now lurking on Capitol Hill, his money will be well-earned. And if Obama gives his lucre to those in the trenches defending his legacy, it will be money well-spent.

Where to Give

Obama can turn the booing to cooing by donating the $400,000 to a good health care cause, of which there are plenty.

1. The National Patient Advocate Foundation is a stout defender of Obamacare’s requirement that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. Its motto: "Don't just sit there, raise your voice! Sharing your story may be the single most important and far-reaching thing you can do to help patients nationwide."

Don't just sit there, Barack; sign that check.

2. If Obama wants to advance the imperiled cause of Medicaid expansion, he can donate to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. The group notes that 21 states do not have a health insurance option for the poor. "The arguments in favor of Medicaid expansion are compelling," says NHCHC, "but it will take public pressure and dedicated advocacy to convince officials in these states to expand Medicaid."

An additional $400,000 in the bank wouldn't hurt, sir. 

3. If Obama wants to get really wiggy in his post-presidency, he could send $400K of love to Labor United for Universal Healthcare, which seeks to deliver health care to all Californians. Of course, as a presidential candidate, Obama didn’t favor a single-payer system, and he wouldn't dream of such a thing as president. But that was then, this is now. The president should be able to understand that the best defense of Obamacare is a good offense aimed at extending his original goal of health care for every single American. Why not experiment in California to see if it can work nationwide?

Such a combination of policy advocacy and political philanthropy will not mute Obama's critics on the right, and it may not appease everyone on the left. But it will help sick people and Democrats everywhere, and boy, we sure could use some help.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.