Hillary Clinton’s new campaign memoir, What Happened, has been panned by critics for failing to take enough responsibility for losing the election to Donald Trump. Jonathan Allen noted at Politico that the book “devotes many more pages to casting blame in other directions.” The New Republic’s Sarah Jones wrote, “Hillary Clinton doesn’t get it.” But on one issue—her decision to deliver speeches to Goldman Sachs for enormous amounts of money—Clinton did get it. “Especially after the financial crisis of 2008-2009,” Clinton writes, “I should have realized it would be bad ‘optics’ and stayed away from anything having to do with Wall Street. I didn’t. That’s on me.”
Barack Obama, the president who presided over the regulation of Wall Street after the financial crisis struck, has seemingly learned the opposite lesson. On Monday it was reported by Bloomberg that Obama in August accepted $400,000 for a speech he delivered to Northern Trust Corporation, a wealth management bank. That was followed last week by a speech to the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. It had also been previously reported that Obama was receiving $400,000 from the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald to speak at a health care conference later this month.
There are some major differences between Clinton’s situation and Obama’s. Clinton was ramping up to run for president in a decidedly anti-establishment year—“anger at the financial industry had been building for years,” Clinton acknowledges in her book—while Obama is returning to private life, with no clear political future. But while Clinton may have learned (too late) that Democratic leaders are under intense pressure to repair an image that has been tarnished by accusations of elitism and corruption, Obama doesn’t seem to have received the memo.
In fact, the way Obama has acted in his post-presidency suggests that he has still not fully grappled with the seismic shift of the last election. He appears to be operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was elected president, rather than Donald Trump, and nowhere is this clearer than in his puzzling decision to accept multiple exorbitant speaking fees from the 1 percent. (Having just signed a $60 million book deal with Penguin Random House, the Obamas do not need the money.)
It’s true that Obama’s choice to do so falls in the pattern of his immediate predecessors, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And as a private citizen, it’s all too understandable that one would accept such lucrative offers. If Hillary Clinton had won the election, the speeches probably would have raised hackles from progressives on the left and the usual detractors on the right, while largely being dismissed as the kind of thing that ex-presidents just do.
But Trump’s presidency changes everything. Obama thus far has largely stayed out of the political limelight, but with the Democratic Party in shambles and his legacy under attack, he will undoubtedly remain an influential leader in the party—perhaps the most influential leader, until the Democrats nominate a 2020 presidential candidate. He has already thrown his weight behind the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a private non-profit that launched in January to roll back years of Republican gerrymandering. Obama is also planning a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in late September, his first time raising money for the party since he left office. However, even when Obama has spoken up, he has made an effort to stay on the sidelines, often refusing to call out Trump by name.
This is clearly an unprecedented environment for a post-presidency to roll out, requiring Obama to tread a particularly difficult course between keeping a respectful distance (his eight years are up after all) and standing up for bedrock American institutions and principles. But there is just no way to be apolitical in the Trump era. And if Obama wants to be an effective leader for Democrats as they rebuild and rehabilitate themselves, he can’t be on the paid Wall Street circuit. As Matt Yglesias wrote at Vox in April, “Leaders who sincerely care about the fate of the progressive center as a nationally and globally viable political movement need to push back against this perception by behaving with a higher degree of personal integrity than their rivals—not by accepting the logic that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
In What Happened, Clinton makes a common defense of Obama: that he raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history, but it “didn’t stop him from imposing tough new rules to curb risk and prevent future financial crashes.” The implication is that the “optics” are the main problem with the Wall Street speeches. A candidate who received donations from financial CEOs could still be counted on to regulate that sector.
But Obama’s record cuts both ways. Yes, his administration implemented new, important regulations on the financial sector. But the strength of many of those regulations are still being determined, while there was little desire to break up some of the bigger banks (indeed, they got even bigger over the course of the crisis, thanks to a series of emergency consolidations). Meanwhile, financial institutions received only wrist slaps when it came to prosecution, and no prominent bankers went to prison for crashing the country’s economy.
The line from big donors to policy is, by design, nebulous rather than straightforward, making any sort of influence difficult to prove outright. But the fact remains that corporations wouldn’t give money if they didn’t expect favorable outcomes in return. As Dick Durbin once said, the banks “frankly own the place,” meaning Washington, D.C. If Clinton were president, this would likely have remained the status quo, but with Trump in the Oval Office, Democrats are under pressure to reorient themselves as the party of the working and middle classes and minorities, rather than that of the financial and technological elite. And yeah, the optics are really bad.
The bad optics extend to the Obama Foundation. The organization, whose website launched in January, is markedly benign. It aims to train “civic innovators” and is scheduled to host a summit in October where “civic leaders” can “come together to exchange ideas.” While much of its mission has been vaguely worded, the foundation is helmed by a slew of investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and tech venture capitalists. The foundation’s board has pro-privatization political leanings, most notably when it comes to charter schools. Members of the board include former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who serves as a managing director at Bain Capital; John Doerr, a famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist; John Rogers, president of Ariel Investments; and Michael Sacks, CEO of the hedge fund company GCM Grosvenor.
Under a Clinton administration, the Obama Foundation would make sense. It would create some distance between Obama and his Democratic successor, while continuing to further the former president’s pet projects. But under the Trump administration, the foundation’s leadership is out of step with the direction that the Democratic Party is taking. Earlier this year, Democrats, led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, released a Better Deal plan that came down hard on breaking up corporate monopolies, specifically calling out internet companies. Some Democrats have begun to talk about the need to regulate companies like Facebook. And progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are pushing hard for an antitrust agenda.
Obama’s post-presidency is still in its infant stages, and there is obviously a lot of potential for him and his foundation to do a world of good. At the same time, the Democrats are doing a lot of soul-searching right now, and Obama’s actions suggest an aloofness from that project. “Not everyone’s going to be a Jimmy Carter, who does purely good works after he gets out,” Sean Coffey, a Democratic donor who defended one of the few individuals to be tried for crimes related to the financial crisis, told Bloomberg about Obama’s decision to accept Wall Street fees. That Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency is considered a very high bar, and not the norm, is disheartening; that these are the kinds of people Obama is surrounding himself with, even more so.