The news that Barack Obama will be paid $400,000 to deliver a speech at a September health care conference sponsored by the Cantor Fitzgerald investment bank has provoked wildly different reactions among self-identified progressives. To generalize, one group thinks it's a big mistake for someone who aspires to remain prominent in progressive activism to participate in an event that perpetuates the "revolving door" influence of corporate special interests. The other group can't believe the first group thinks that it's not fair to tell Obama he can't make money for himself by doing one measly ol' speech that won't have any effect on public policy anyway.
Here's another perspective—a third way, if you will: Barack Obama is not selling out his ideals or taking a paycheck that's unrelated to them. He's doing this because he thinks big-money special interests have a valid place in American politics.
Let's review some of what happened during Obama's presidency.
- The advisers who helped him run his inspiring 2008 campaign all became big-money corporate lobbyists.
- He backed the Affordable Care Act's creation of a health-care system that's very generous to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, both of which were consulted extensively during the composition of the the bill.
- He appointed bankers like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and William Daley to some of the most influential positions in his administration.
- He chose not to push for criminal prosecutions of financial executives whose involvement in fraud had helped cause the 2008 economic crash.
Obama says he's against this kind of thing. On April 24, in fact, one of the topline messages of his first post-presidency public appearance was that special-interest lobbying—and the influence of money on politics more broadly—is one of the primary obstacles to making progress on problems such as economic inequality, climate change, and crime:
What is preventing us from tackling [the United States' problems] and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life. It has to do with the fact that because of things like political gerrymandering our parties have moved further and further apart and it's harder and harder to find common ground. Because of money and politics. Special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don't match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel.
One thing that's nice about Obama is that his words usually match his deeds. But the words and deeds just don't match up in this case, and they haven't since he campaigned in 2008 on a platform of representing grass roots Americans against big-money corporate lobbyists and then went and did all the things I listed above.
There is a good argument to be made, given how strong of a backlash Obama's relatively moderate health care and financial-regulation legislation triggered, that he had no choice but to deal with lobbyists if he wanted to pass meaningful laws. His moves to expand health insurance coverage and revive a depressed economy ultimately did accomplish progressive goals. But that doesn't explain why he chooses to personally associate himself with corporate lobbying and finance executives or why, if he thinks it's a problem that big-money special interests "dominate the debate," he chooses to take money to make himself available to those interests.
Obama is obviously a careful thinker, and even on subjects like foreign policy and race relations on which he's taken significant criticism, it's hard to argue that he hasn't fully thought through the issues involved—see for example his extensive interviews with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg about the "Obama Doctrine" and with Ta-Nehisi Coates about race. But—as far as I know—he has never publicly resolved the seeming tension between his articulate criticism of lobbying's warping influence on American politics and his personal comfort with lobbyists themselves. For now, though, the evidence suggests that his true feeling about big money in politics is that it's fine.