When pictures of former President Obama blissfully enjoying a tropical vacation emerged early in President Donald Trump’s tenure, the former president’s supporters were divided. “I’m a little sick of seeing photos of President Obama on vacation . . . I’m glad he’s having a nice time. America is on fire,” joked liberal comedian John Oliver. Others were simply pleased to see their former leader freed from the stress of his position and beaming over the handles of a kitesurf. This divide over vacation snapshots may seem silly, but it prompts a more serious question: What, exactly, are we owed by former presidents?
Obama’s decision to start his post-presidential life by giving a string of pricey speeches to Wall Street bankers has made this question more pressing. While he has also given unpaid speeches to a variety of nonprofits, these have been eclipsed in the media by the three speeches he has given to Wall Street firms at $400,000 apiece. Some have claimed that this is an indication of corruption and cronyism. Others are simply bothered by the appearance of coziness between the president and the bankers he once campaigned against. While I don’t believe that Obama is merely speaking in front of problematic organizations is a betrayal of his values, I do believe that the optics of these speeches are so poor that he should not have given them.
The president’s defenders have argued that giving a speech to an organization is not offering it an endorsement. “Regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision, and his record,” argued Eric Schulz, a senior advisor to Obama, in a statement to CNN. While this may be the case, choosing a sponsor that the president once opposed understandably makes those people doubt the depth of this commitment. Others have pointed out that past presidents have faced minimal criticism for their own lucrative speaking tours. This ignores the fact that previous presidents rarely gave speeches to the same organizations they once counted among their political enemies. Cashing in on their years of public service is a time-honored and relatively harmless practice among presidents. Cashing in by accepting money from groups that they once campaigned against is less conventional and worthy of scrutiny.
I concur with the statements made by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both of whom have built their political careers through opposition to corrupt Wall Street practices and have tactfully but openly criticized Obama’s decision to speak to Wall Street institutions. Sanders has declared the speeches “distasteful,” while Warren has said she is “troubled” by them. Notably, neither senator has claimed that the speeches are an indication of corruption nor that the speeches will lead to any practical consequences to the American people; after all, Obama is now a private citizen. He does not have the power to aid bankers and never will again. While giving speeches to Wall Street cannot retroactively undermine his strong track record of financial reform, which includes the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act and numerous consumer protection laws, these speeches can be “distasteful” and “troubling” to those who still see him as their champion, if only symbolically. A speech does not have to have a tangible effect on policy to be harmful. If he genuinely believed that Wall Street bankers are dangerous to the American people, why is he now willing to accept their money? For Americans who still hold him up as a symbol, his choice to enrich himself with the pockets of Wall Street bankers weakens their faith in him and in the Democratic Party.
Obama no longer has an obligation to serve the American people, but having the right to do something does not make that thing right. Being the president of the United States is simultaneously a tremendous privilege and a heavy burden. It offers extraordinary power, unparalleled amounts of respect and opportunities for the financial gains required to fund tropical kitesurfing vacations. It also—at least until recently—demands exacting moral standards and meticulously avoiding even the appearance of corruption. The burdens are the price of the privileges, and it is unfair to continue to enjoy the latter while shucking the former. If it is absurd to criticize a man for talking to his former political opponents, it is equally absurd to charge $400,000 for an hourlong speech. Obama can no longer offer his supporters meaningful opposition to predatory Wall Street banks, but he still owes them a symbolic distance.