Obama's Wall Street Speeches Have a Message for the Democrats


If you’re wondering where Barack Obama stands in the struggle for the future of the Democratic Party, check his calendar. While supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are vying to define the Democrats as a corporate-friendly party or a populist insurgency, the former president has been stacking his Benjamins courtesy of Wall Street. 

Just last week, Obama reminisced about his White House years at the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms, according to Bloomberg. Next week, he’ll give a keynote speech at investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald's conference on health care.

Last month, he spoke to clients of the Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. (“We serve the world’s most-sophisticated clients, from sovereign wealth funds and the wealthiest individuals and families, to the most successful hedge funds and corporate brands.”)

The wages of an ex-president: $400,000 per chat. If you want to know what exactly Obama said, you're out of luck: $400,000 buys a whole lot of non-disclosure. 

Corporate Power

Bloomberg notes:

While he can’t run for president, Obama continues to be an influential voice in a party torn between celebrating and vilifying corporate power. His new work with banks might suggest which side of the debate he’ll be on and disappoint anyone expecting him to avoid a trap that snared Clinton.

In her new book, Clinton expresses regret about making paid speaking appearances on Wall Street after she left the State Department in 2013, saying it created the impression that she was beholden to the financial industry.

Obama doesn’t have that worry, because he’s not running for anything. But his party has to worry about how to recover from Clinton’s disastrous loss to Trump. In key battleground states, a critical bloc of working-class voters who had voted for Obama swung to the Republicans. To win in 2020, the Democratic nominee will need a message that brings those voters back and inspires people who didn't vote at all.

As the party’s most popular personality, Obama is in a position to influence the sometime bitter debate about the party’s economic message.

Obama’s formula for Wall Street was tough rhetoric, light regulation and personal connections. He came to office in 2009 talking about “fat cats” and he backed the Dodd-Frank legislation to prevent the emergence of “too big to fail” banks.  

But his Justice Department did not prosecute any major bankers for their roles in the financial crisis. He resisted calls to break up the biggest banks which pulled in record profits while most Americans saw wages and salaries stagnate. And his closest advisers, such as Attorney General Eric Holder, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and economic adviser Lawrence Summers, made fortunes on Wall Street.

The Obama Primary

Obama’s buckracking sends a message to the growing field of prospective presidential candidates in 2020. It's a tacit endorsement of the party’s corporate wing, led by the likes of Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and perhaps Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). They seek good relations with the financial industry, albeit with some regulation. To them, Obama’s message is: Wall Street is part of the Democratic coalition.

Obama’s speechifying is a tacit rebuke of the party’s left-wingers, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Ver.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). They advocate getting tougher on the financial sector, rhetorically and practically, with tighter regulations, higher taxes and stricter anti-monopoly policy. To them, Obama’s message is: Don’t burn your bridges to Wall Street.

And Obama’s voice will likely be influential. With his work on gerrymandering and his defense of the Dreamers, Obama is launching an activist ex-presidency unlike any other former chief executive since Teddy Roosevelt tried to regain the presidency in 1912. Come 2020, there will likely be an Obama primary, in which Democratic presidential contenders compete for #44's nod.

The challenge for the progressive presidential hopefuls will be to make the case for a populist economic message without repudiating Obama. That’s not impossible. A populist economic message could be framed as a deepening of Obama’s legacy. The fiasco of Clinton’s defeat shows the dangers of a pro-Wall Street image. And the rank and file of the party has moved to the left as the growing enthusiasm for single-payer health care indicates.

The benefits of Obama’s speechifying will trickle down to poor people, Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president, told Bloomberg.

Obama has delivered public and private speeches that are “true to his values,” Lewis said in an email. “His paid speeches in part have allowed President Obama to contribute $2 million to Chicago programs offering job training and employment opportunities to low-income youth.”

Is that a winning message or weak tea? Democrats have to decide. 

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