After vacationing on the private island of billionaire Richard Branson, President Obama has christened his return to public life by accepting a $400,000 speaking fee for a Wall Street bank. Obama’s return to public life was greeted by hagiographical opinion pieces reminding readers he embodies the kind of values that any progressive or liberal-minded person should. But he is not the hope-and-change candidate we met a decade ago—he’s an American Tory.
Those writing the hagiography are correct in the sense that Obama is the embodiment of liberal values—but what these values look like in practice is what separates the emerging left-critics of the president’s speech to a Wall Street bank and his liberal defenders. For the left-critics, taking nearly half a million dollars to speak to bankers shows where Obama’s loyalties always lay. When Obama told bankers in 2009 that it was him standing between them and the pitchforks—it wasn’t a threat made on behalf of the American people but a promise to the Wall Street banks that he would ultimately protect them. Given that not a single bank executive went to jail—while the foreclosure crisis essentially wiped out a generation of wealth with black and Latino families bearing the harshest effects—he made good on that promise. The pitchforks were kept out, and now Obama can be financially rewarded by the industry.
The arguments made by liberals in favor of Obama making $400,000 from the banks have been divided into three broad categories—that he is pulling a fast one on the banks, that he’s not pulling a fast one on the banks because the banks are good, and finally, “what does it even matter in the age of Trump?”
There are a handful of liberals who are claiming that the money is being taken in a Robin Hood fashion—Obama isn’t sympathetic to investment bankers and he is merely taking the money and running. This is infantile for two reasons. The first is that it frames being paid a large amount of money for the speech as a robbery of the banks. $400,000 is a lot of money to most people the world over, but to an institution like Cantor Fitzgerald, worth millions more dollars, the amount is relatively small.
Secondly, the content of the speech is not going to be a tirade against the banks. There will be no Lenin-esque denunciations of capital and the bourgeoisie when Obama speaks. This would not only be out of character for Obama, but a firm like Cantor Fitzgerald isn’t going to hire someone to yell at them during a conference.
When this argument is made in good faith, it is at least one that recognizes the destructive role that Wall Street has had on people’s lives—but it clings to the notion that Obama is basically someone he isn’t. When the argument is made in bad faith, it is usually by someone who does not feel that Wall Street is inherently bad, but lacks the conviction in their own beliefs to say so plainly as those in the second category of the President’s defense do.
The second major liberal defense acknowledges Obama is not playing the part of Robin Hood. Those in this camp argue a Robin Hood figure is not needed at all! While largely neoliberals and not explicitly classical liberals themselves, they still believe in the classical liberal credo of “free markets, free minds.”
That it was Wall Street that almost caused an outright global depression a decade ago is little mentioned in these discussions. There are those that have argued that there would be no outcry if Obama took the money from teachers unions or nurses—it’s a poor argument because nurses and teachers unions are not of the same magnitude or class position as Wall Street. It expresses a fundamentally neoliberal view of the world, one that sees private industries like Wall Street as fundamentally good.
Further, they work to obscure class politics. “How dare you tell people they can’t make money,” they scold. They equate a millionaire who already has a $65 million book deal with a single mother living paycheck to paycheck. This is a lie. A millionaire and a worker do not have the same concerns or financial burdens. Neoliberals hide this class division and put the two on equal footing. They accuse Obama’s left critics of wanting no one to have financial security—$400K is a lot of money and could ease many people’s burdens in the existing economic system! But again, it is nothing less than an outright lie to say $400K is the same to someone who works in retail as it is to someone who is already a millionaire. The notion that only through wealth inequality is material security possible is a flatly reactionary one.
In one sense, this fight is like the one that emerged around Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street banks during the primary. What was said in the speeches was less important than that they were made at all. What was important was the debate about whether one could claim to represent the people over business interests while also defending the existence of an industry whose model is to prey upon the working and dwindling middle classes. This leads us to the third liberal defense of Obama’s Wall Street speech: “Who cares?” The age of Trump, they argue, has rendered these kinds of concerns irrelevant.
But these circumstances only give the argument greater urgency! It’s Wall Street that’s found a very generous friend in the Trump administration and many executives and former bankers make up key posts within the administration itself. Wall Street and the nominally center-left party’s relationship to it are extremely important in these circumstances. What does it say about our last presidential administration that a Wall Street firm is willing to have Obama speak at all, let alone pay so much money for the privilege? What does it say for the American political landscape that party lines are irrelevant to Wall Street? The argument is not about individual politicians so much as it is the argument about two irreconcilable political visions of the future.
It’s no accident Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, is now working on Theresa May’s campaign in the UK general election. Not Corbyn’s Labour, not even the Lib Dems—who at least pretend that a policy of austerity is progressive—but the actual Tories themselves. So too it is no accident or trick that Obama has no problem making nearly half a million dollars to tell a Wall Street firm what they want to hear. These aren’t aberrations, but representative of the vision of politics that have basically failed the American people over the last decade. They were insufficient to stop the slow Republican takeover over of most state houses and the national legislature, they were insufficient to stop Trump from taking the White House and they will be insufficient to oppose Trump going forward.