In Defense Of Obama’s $400,000 Speech

Marketable politicians shouldn’t be criticized for making great money. That money helps to keep them out of office when their time is done…
Barack Obama giving a speech on Dec. 6, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Barack Obama giving a speech on Dec. 6, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

There’s just something unseemly about politicians just out of office raking in the bug bucks, isn’t there? Consider that former president Obama and his wife received a rumored $65 million advance for two books, and he’s set to give a speech to bankers for a $400,000 fee. Former President Bush isn’t anywhere close to this kind of cash, but don’t feel too bad for him. He got a $15 million advance for his memoir, and rakes in $100,000 to $170,000 per speech on the public speaking circuit. Why did Obama do so much better? In the wake of the 2016 election, he left office on a high note and is still rather popular internationally, whereas Bush’s tumultuous presidency ended with a 22% approval rating and he’s not exactly beloved overseas. In other words, if you’re an agent for ex-presidents, Obama is a lot more marketable.

Whether that’s fair or not depends on how you feel about Obama and Bush, but it’s very clear that our high profile public servants won’t go hungry after they leave office and forfeit their reliable salaries for writing, appearance fees, and consulting multinational conglomerates on the many tricky intricacies of international dealmaking. It’s tempting to look at them with a great deal of scorn for enriching themselves after holding high office, but at the risk of voicing an unpopular opinion, that’s probably a good thing and is a critical part of ensuring the smooth transition of power in democracies despite how rarely we talk about it. I’d much rather have politicians who ran the nation become millionaires after their vacations than retreat to a modest life with a humble salary and restrictions on their future occupations.

Now, now, please put down the pitchforks and let me explain. My opinion is based on what I’ve seen in countries where the only way to become rich has to somehow involve the government, setting up some perverse incentives for those in power. The whole point is that our leaders eventually leave to make room for a new generation, and listen to the people’s voice on whether they should stay or go, and who should replace them. If leaving their posts means they have to give up many of the creature comforts to which they’ve become accustomed, they won’t want to go. If they made some enemies, or cracked down to stay in power, their next destination might be a jail cell or exile, so they have even less incentive to accept the results of an election or allow a fair vote. Some autocrats may have trapped themselves in this way.

By contrast, consider that with a single speech, Obama will make his annual salary as president. His predecessor made over $40 million with writing and speaking while staying more or less out of sight. Trump will also have more than enough opportunities to make millions when his time is up. They don’t need to secure a government contract, or appoint successors to ensure their continued wealth, unlike many Russian politicians turned oligarchs or vice versa. Incidentally, this is why the Emoluments Clause exists, to prevent the use of high office as a tool for fattening up one’s wallet because should it be ignored, we end up with the malicious incentives we just covered. Return to private life after using one’s time in charge to amass fortunes? Why not stay and make even more? Just tell the peasants it’s for their own good.

If you’re a conservative, you should be cheering this arrangement. Is there a better way to keep government in check than by making sure that wealth is on the outside of its halls? Despite what right wing media will tell you, a lot of government employees aren’t getting lavish salaries. Their benefits can be better than those of most private employees and their schedules offer a real work-life balance thanks to enforced 40 hour work weeks, unless they’re in publicly visible or elected positions, but overall, they are taking pay cuts for their jobs. Consulting for the government is much more lucrative than being an actual government employee, and working in the private sector is where the real money is because even the most modest public deals are subject to scrutiny by pundits and demagogues. Private deals? Not so much.

Maybe this is a perverse way to look at people, through the lens of monetary incentives and suspecting the worst. Maybe growing up in the former USSR and imploding, autocratic Eastern Europe instilled these pessimistic views of government officials and tolerance for encouraging people to pay them very large sums of money to leave power and enjoy their millions. But from what I’ve seen, this arrangement has been working fantastically well, and since all our retired public officials are now private citizens whose marketability and expertise is determined by other private parties, we should not be dictating how big of a check other private citizens are allowed to write them. Instead, we should be glad that for American politicians there’s a rewarding life to be had after their time in office, away from the scrutiny of public service.

News // America / Barack Obama / Business / Politics