They began with the stance that it simply wasn’t an issue. Obama’s a private citizen now, so who cares? But lots of people did care. When the story picked up steam despite their protestations, my friends then blamed the loony left for fabricating the issue, launching a general assault on fringe elements of the Democratic party and a firm defense of sensible liberal or centrist (depending on the friend) outlooks. But of course it wasn’t just the left. The right predictably piled on as well, without any prompting from the left. The story also transcended the partisan divide as the centrist press ran with it. Christ, even the BBC, the vanilla pudding of international news, covered it.
In the end, the defense of Obama that gained the most traction among my friends, and to some degree in the national media, was a racial analysis. Some claimed that this brouhaha was another example of white people shaming a black man for earning a paycheck, the imposition of a racial double standard since white politicians and ex-politicians do this kind of thing all time.
This needs to be reckoned with. Obama was always held to a higher standard, precisely because he was black. He was always subjected to intense racism. And the racist backlash to his presidency, as much as anything else, helps explain Trump’s victory. So was this just another example of that racial double standard? It’s an important question to ask.
In the end, I don’t think it was. Which is not to say that Obama is no longer subject to racism and double standards; he obviously is. And those issues are still at play here, but I don’t believe they’re the driving force. Because to mark race as the reason for a vast public outcry against his acceptance of money is to ignore the most salient point: where the money came from.
People are not upset that he made money. Private citizen Obama collecting a $400,000 speaking fee doesn’t violate anyone’s principles, even racist assholes’. Rather, the problem is that he very specifically took money from Wall Street. The proof is clear: There wasn’t nearly as much griping when he signed a $20,000,000 book deal last month.
Why did that eight-figure windfall spark nowhere near the outrage this five-figure fee did? Because no one’s worried that publishing money has corrupted Washington. No one’s bitter about the book industry crippling the U.S. economy ten years ago, only to reap a massive bailout from taxpayers, and now running amok again. And thus, virtually no criticism of twenty-million to publish what will probably be the kind of bland, self-serving memoir that every ex-president of late has authored. But $400,000 from Wall Street is different, if for no other reason than the general public now views Wall Street differently than it used to.
Why did Obama take the speaking fee? Should he have? Should people be upset about it? None of those questions interest me. Rather, I believe the issue worth considering is: Why exactly did so many people get upset about it?
That question speaks to the current political moment, which Obama seems to have misread, much as the Democratic Party mainstream he represents has been doing for over a year now. Continue reading This Populist Moment