Barack and Michelle Obama have jointly secured a $60 million book deal and the former president is about to make $400,000 for a single speech before a Wall Street investment firm. This has created a minor scandal among American progressives.
At the core of the controversy is whether or not Africans in America, when successful, should be able to enjoy the same rights, privileges and luxuries as do successful white Americans.
The controversy also swirls around what this exorbitant payment from Wall Street signals about how far removed the leadership of the Democratic Party has become from the experiences of middle and working class families, who struggle to live from paycheque to paycheque.
The controversy about the speaking fee, not so much the book deal, suggests something about to whom the leadership of the Democratic Party is actually accountable, and it speaks to the corruptive influence of big money on politics in the United States.
The book deal is not so controversial because the publisher has announced that the Obamas have decided to give most of the royalties to charity. In any event, royalties from a publishing company do not smell of an attempt to buy influence in the corridors of power. Receiving exorbitant speaking fees from investment firms, however, is another matter.
The problem with the speaking fee is that it smacks of what Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post calls “entitled elitism”. It damages the credibility of the Democratic Party when they say they are on the side of working people while supporting globalisation, and neoliberal economics, and as they avoid making the rise of income inequality and austerity measures central concerns in their campaign rhetoric.
Critics of the speaking fee point to the way that Hillary Clinton’s $675,000 cache from Goldman Sachs, in 2013, damaged her brand in the 2016 presidential election. They point out that the fee raised suspicion that those investment firms were attempting to buy influence in a future Clinton administration.
People who defend Obama’s speaking fee argue that the former president is not running for any office in the future. There is no reason, they argue, to assume that Wall Street is trying to buy favours from someone who will not be in a position to deliver them.
While Mr. Obama will not be running for public office in the future, he will be the most visible leader of the Democratic Party, and of the opposition to Donald Trump and the Republicans, at least until 2019.
If the former president wants to be taken seriously as the defender of working-class Americans he cannot continue the practice of previous leaders of the Democratic Party in which they enter into lucrative deals with financiers who, arguably, are working against the interests of the party’s core constituents.
But many Black Americans see the matter differently. They see criticism of Mr. Obama’s speaking fees as yet another example of America’s double-standard when it comes to matters of race.
They point out that former presidents, since Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, have capitalised on their status. They wonder why it has suddenly become controversial when the first African American in that position does the same.
They see, in this criticism, a continuation of the pattern of attempting to delegitimise Mr. Obama. They are suspicious of the excessive scrutiny given to Obama’s lifestyle while other former presidents, who have lived more lavishly, have been given a pass.
They also point out that the former president is now working for political reform and he is working to encourage young people to become more engaged in civic life. This, they say, shows that he is not just looking out for himself.
There can be little doubt the calculation within Obama’s circles was that the former president will be unable to command such extravagant speaking fees after he has been out of office for a few years. Mr. Obama is a popular man and a viable symbol; the Obama brand is still fresh in the minds of Americans, and the contrast against Donald Trump makes Americans even more curious about anything Mr. Obama has to say.
The degree to which Mr. Obama will be able to command such attention will diminish as a new round of potential challengers to unseat Donald Trump rise to the fore, in the next two years. Clearly, the best time to cash in on the Obama legacy is right now.
Moreover, many Black Americans live vicariously through the success of the Obama family. They wanted to see him succeed politically, and now they want the best for him financially, because they see his success as being symbolic of the opportunities that have been denied to them. But taking advantage of these opportunities will come at a cost.
The United States is deeply divided today between those who benefit financially from globalisation and those who have a lower standard-of-living than their parents had, and who are in danger of losing everything they have worked for.
In the last election, the Republicans were successful in tapping these anxieties. For their part, the Democrats have emerged as social and cultural liberals, but their economic agenda, based on global neoliberalism, seems out of step with the public’s anxieties.
It will not help matters for the Democrats if the party’s leadership, including Mr. Obama, can be seen enriching themselves with money from Wall Street, the place that many believe has caused misery on Main Street, which is where working class Americans live.