Reports that Barack Obama will receive $400,000 for a speech at a Wall Street health conference have produced some violent finger-wagging by populists on the left. “Distasteful,” Bernie Sanders called it. Elizabeth Warren is “troubled,” citing concern about “the influence of money” in politics.
Let’s unpack this nonsense. First off, Obama’s current job title is former politician. As president, he pushed the passage of Dodd- Frank, the Wall Street reforms despised by many in this paying audience. So where’s the quid pro quo?
Secondly, perhaps — just perhaps — someone of Obama’s stature may turn the influence tables around and change the thinking of the money people. Could you imagine Obama sabotaging his greatest triumph, a health insurance system now bearing his name, for even that kind of money?
Most regard the “revolving door” with disgust. Industries’ hiring the politicians who helped them while in office is indeed disturbing and troubling. A paid speech, however, is a one-time deal, not a posh lobbying job.
Frankly, I can’t see writing a $400,000 check for anyone’s speech, but if other deeper pockets want to, that’s their business. LeBron James makes almost $400,000 a game, and he has 82 games in the regular season. (That does bother me, because I pay part of it through my inflated cable bill.)
Sanders’s snapping at Obama for accepting this nicely paid gig seems a replay of his successful and unfair attacks on Hillary Clinton over her speeches to Wall Street. Like Obama today, Clinton held no political office at the time. In addition, she had also supported tightening Dodd-Frank.
More to the point, the financial industry is a major employer in New York, the state she represented in the Senate. As senator from Vermont, Sanders backed the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, despite its many billions in cost overruns, because it employed a lot of Vermonters.
Asked why a peace-loving senator would support a military boondoggle, Sanders responded pragmatically: “What are my options as a senator? … If I said ‘no’ to the F-35 coming to Burlington, for Vermont National Guard, where would it go? … South Carolina?”
As senator from Massachusetts, Warren has worked tirelessly to kill the tax on medical devices, which helps pay for Obamacare. Guess which state has a large medical devices industry.
I don’t begrudge either Sanders or Warren for taking care of constituents, thus reassuring reelection. And Wall Street’s harmful stranglehold on much of our economy is indisputable. But the military-industrial complex and big medicine are not exactly small players, either.
One admires Sanders, an independent, for pushing the Democratic Party to broaden its appeal to purple parts of the country at the risk of displeasing some core followers. But one would also welcome a little humility on his part when judging others for doing essentially what he does. (One thing he wouldn’t do was release his tax returns, and many wonder why.)
And though the financiers at Goldman Sachs are not exactly curing cancer, they are often quite progressive on environmental and social matters. Some, such as Gary Cohn, head of President Trump’s National Economic Council, are Democrats and moderating influences.
Again, this is not to dismiss the dangers of letting Wall Street romp unsupervised. Rather, Wall Street is better engaged with than mindlessly demonized.
As for the revolving door, that refers to politicians moving from the outside to inside an industry for a prosperous stay — not a twohour visit. If after 20 grueling years in public service Obama wants to pick up some financial security by giving speeches, call off the dogs and let him be.