by The Editorial Board , USA TODAY
For an elder statesman America might need to call on in the Trump era, $400,000 speeches are a bad idea.
President Obama in 2016.
(Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)
Former president Barack Obama’s decision to accept $400,000 for an upcoming Wall Street speech certainly has been noticed by partisans on the left and right. Liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, said she was “troubled,” while Fox Business used it to call Obama “Wall Street’s newest fat cat.”
But should the rest of America care? In ordinary times, Obama’s decision to cash in wouldn’t be that comment-worthy. He has led a life of public service paying well below what he could have made in corporate law or as a business executive. Now, with bills to pay and girls to put through college, he wants to play a little financial catch-up. Most presidents since Gerald Ford have opted to make a quick buck in ways that aren’t available to mere mortals.
But these are not normal times. In a little over 100 days, President Trump has mired his administration in a Russian influence scandal, broken new ground in peddling falsehoods, offered White House posts to shady characters, brought the nation closer to war with North Korea, threatened to sabotage trade relations with America’s two closest neighbors, displayed a general impatience for complex issues, allowed his White House to descend into petty infighting, and set a record for time spent on the golf course. Oh, and over dessert he informed the president of China that he was firing missiles at Syria. A member of the Cabinet joked that the military action was “in lieu of after-dinner entertainment.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to see an understaffed administration with erratic, divided leadership lurching into a political crisis, or something worse. If that moment comes, America might find it needs Obama as a voice of reason.
The former president ran a relatively scandal-free administration known for favoring cautious steps rather than brash moves. Despite political setbacks that cost the Democratic Party dearly during his tenure, nostalgic Americans pushed his approval ratings above 60% in polls taken as he left office.
Obama is a smart man, smart enough to know when to do the normal ex-president thing of keeping his mouth shut, and when to step in to say that things are going terribly wrong. It’s something he might need to do.
While Obama’s views wouldn’t carry much weight with Trump loyalists, they would with centrists, independents and Never-Trump Republicans. Obama and former president George W. Bush could be the only leaders with the clout to grab national attention if Trump’s erratic behavior goes too far.
But that can’t happen if Obama’s buck-raking speeches turn him into a symbol of everything about Washington that voters detest. Obama has already taken a $400,000 for an appearance before television advertisers, and now plans to address a health care conference sponsored by investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald. The two speeches are potent symbols of a political class disconnected from voters who struggle to afford the American dream for their children while earning in an entire year what Obama earns in 11 minutes.
And for what? Unless there is something we don’t know, the Obamas don’t need the money. He and his wife, Michelle, have signed a deal for two books with a $65 million advance, a mind-boggling fortune to most Americans that will only add to the millions the Obamas earned for previous books.
Indeed, if there is a lesson to be learned from the presidential campaign that put Trump in the White House, it is that there are consequences when politicians appear to set aside the values they stood for in their public lives to capitalize on their years of service.
Most Americans agreed with Obama when he noted in 2010, “At a certain point, you’ve earned enough money.” Especially at such a precarious moment for America, he ought to consider taking his own advice.