President Barack Obama got a big laugh a year ago, when he did his comedy shtick at the White House Correspondents Dinner for the final time. “If this material works well,” he told the roomful of reporters and mostly B-list celebrities, “I’m going to use it at Goldman Sachs next year.”
The room went wild at what was perceived as a shot at the dumb ethical lapse of the person most of them assumed would be president today, Hillary Clinton. And of course, private citizen Obama is absolutely not delivering that big-money speech to Goldman Sachs.
No, he’ll be giving it instead to a different Wall Street firm, Cantor Fitzgerald.
For an hour or so of work, the 44th president reportedly will pick up a nifty check for $400,000.
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Here’s something else that’s actually funny. Once upon time, America was very worried that an ex-president might try to sell the good name of the office for a quick buck.
In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, which awarded an annual pension, plus staff and other perks, to ex-presidents when they leave office. (Obama is slated to make $205,700 this year.)
But in 1989, Ronald Reagan netted a $2 million pay day for speaking to the Japanese, and that was all she wrote.
Hillary and Bill Clinton took this to another level in recent years because they were getting paid by banks and Wall Street firms even as they worked to return to the White House, where she would have regulated those very same folks. That was wrong, in a big way.
I seriously doubt that either Barack or Michelle Obama will be elected to public office, but I still think his Wall Street windfall is also not good.
Look, I have no problem with the former First Couple getting a $60 million book deal, because book writing is an actual job and because lots of people will buy their books, so that’s capitalism at work, baby.
But a 40-minute probably canned speech and a Q&A isn’t worth $400,000. It’s a glorified tribute from Wall Street, a kind of — yes, I’ll say it — bribe.
Some folks — myself included — thought the Obama administration should have been tougher on Wall Street. Now he’s getting a big check from a Wall Street firm less than six months after leaving office. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say the appearance is bad.
It’s time to crack down on post-presidential speech bribery.
We’ve already established that there are ethical limits on what high-ranking government officials can do after leaving office. Obama and President Trump have signed executive orders restricting lobbying by former White House officials.
Why not, either by executive order or by an act of Congress, cap the amount of money that ex-presidents and Cabinet members can collect for giving speeches for four or five years. Make it $10,000 a pop, plus expenses.
And if we’re really going crazy, maybe an ex-president who makes more than $1 million a year (spoiler alert: they all do) should give his paltry $205,700 back to us lowly citizens who don’t earn $400,000 an hour at our jobs.
One last thing: I’ve read a lot of chatter in the last day on Twitter that amounts to: Why harass Obama (who some of us think was a pretty darn good president, all things considered) when the most dishonest, corrupt, dangerous and authoritarian president current sits in the Oval Office, scheming to take away your health care if you survive World War III?
Fair question, but you have to remember why Donald Trump is in the White House in the first place. A lot of middle-class folks rejected the Democrats in 2016 because they saw the party’s leaders as spoiled elitists who didn’t understand their problem.
Obama’s down-and-dirty payday doesn’t solve that problem. It only makes it worse for any Democrat in 2020, when America will desperately need to send Trump packing.
There ought to be a law.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.