WASHINGTON — Two post-presidential Barack Obamas emerged this week.
The first was the civic-minded one, seated on a stage in Chicago, where he talked about the importance of community organizing and told a student audience that he had succeeded in politics because people believed “my values were not so different from theirs.”
The other was the one set to cash a $400,000 check from Wall Street — the same amount as his yearly salary during his time in the White House — when he delivers a speech in September at a health care conference run by Cantor Fitzgerald, a trading and investment firm.
On Wednesday, Obama’s spokesman defended the former president’s coming speech, saying Obama decided to give it because health care changes were important to him. The spokesman, Eric Schultz, noted that Cantor Fitzgerald is a Wall Street firm but pointed out in a statement that as a presidential candidate, Obama raised money from Wall Street and went on to aggressively regulate it.
Obama will spend most of his post-presidency, Schultz said, “training and elevating a new generation of political leaders in America.”
Throughout his years in the White House, Obama championed the problems of the poor even as he showed an affinity for Hollywood superstars, elite artists and technology billionaires. As he left the White House, Obama made it clear that he wanted to continue working for those who struggle to climb what he often called the “ladders of opportunity.” During his remarks Monday to students at the University of Chicago, he spoke about the need to pursue the right things in life, not just fame or money.
“If you’re more concerned with ‘I want to be a congressman’ or ‘I want to be a senator’ or ‘I want to be rich,’ some people may succeed in chasing that goal, but when they get there, they don’t know what to do with it,” Obama said.
But the former president’s departure from office was also marked by the mother of all parties: a celebrity-filled White House romp two weeks before Inauguration Day that went past 4 a.m. and included guests like Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.
Obama’s first few months after leaving the White House were spent kitesurfing with Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, and soaking up the French Polynesian sun with Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen and Hanks on a yacht owned by David Geffen, a billionaire and Hollywood mogul.
Obama and his family now live in an 8,200-square-foot, nine-bedroom home in Washington valued at $6 million. The house, which rents for an estimated $22,000 a month, is in one of Washington’s richest neighborhoods, surrounded by ambassadors, executives and other members of the political elite.
“I don’t think that former presidents necessarily take vows of poverty, or should,” said David Axelrod, one of Obama’s closest advisers. “Will he be out there doing good? I think he will be. I watched him for eight years devote every ounce of his energy and thought and attention to the service of this country. I hope that he does find some personal time and solace and enjoyment now. He’s earned it.”
Obama is hardly the first former president to collect big checks after his time in the White House. Former President Bill Clinton became rich after leaving office, earning an average of more than $200,000 per speech over more than a decade. And former President George W. Bush was blunt when asked, shortly after he left office, what he intended to do.
“I’ll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol’ coffers,” he told The New York Times in 2007. Eventually, Bush reportedly received $100,000 to $175,000 for each appearance.
In 1989, Ronald Reagan earned $2 million for a week of speechmaking in Japan after leaving office. The Japan visit, for which he was subsequently the subject of derision, was sponsored by Fujisankei Communications Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate.
“Every president since I’ve been active in politics immediately got whacked for big speechifying” after leaving office, said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist. “I can’t remember it not happening. And they never look good.”
Obama, who grew up without great wealth, had amassed several million dollars by the time he became president, mostly from sales of his first book, “Dreams From My Father.” He and his wife, Michelle, have each received multimillion-dollar contracts to write new memoirs. Some reports pegged the two book deals together at a total of $60 million.
The Cantor Fitzgerald speech will take place at a hotel in New York, where the firm hopes to woo wealthy investors, mutual fund representatives and hedge fund executives to the conference.
Hillary Clinton gave numerous speeches to Wall Street companies before her 2016 presidential campaign, in which she was savaged by her opponents on the left for taking more than $2 million for the appearances.
In a television commercial during the Democratic primary contests, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., unleashed a thinly veiled attack on Clinton for her speechmaking.
“Wall Street banks shower Washington politicians with campaign contributions and speaking fees,” the narrator in the ad says. “While Washington politicians are paid over $200,000 an hour for speeches, they oppose raising the living wage to $15 an hour. Two hundred thousand dollars an hour for them, but not even 15 bucks an hour for all Americans. Enough is enough.”
The Cantor Fitzgerald speech is part of what Obama’s aides have described as a series of public and private events that the former president began on Monday in Chicago. Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in Boston on May 7 at the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation. In May, he plans to hold a similar public conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.