Why Liberals Are So Worked Up About Barack Obama Giving a Paid Speech to Wall Street

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Former President Barack Obama hosts a conversation on civic engagement and community organizing, Monday, April 24, 2017, at the University of Chicago. 

In a decision that launched a thousand Hot Takes, former President Barack Obama has accepted a $400,000 fee to give a speech at a health-care conference sponsored by the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Given the intensity of the reaction from liberals (sample headline: "Obama's $400,000 Wall Street speaking fee will undermine everything he believes in"), you'd almost think Obama had begun lobbying for the repeal of Dodd-Frank, or maybe gone on a seal-clubbing expedition. While he had some defenders, the dominant sentiment from his supporters seemed to be either disappointment or anger.

I'm not going to make an argument for why Obama should or shouldn't give paid speeches, and to whom (though I will say that by today's standards, $400,000 is pretty modest—it'll cost you a lot more to get Kim Kardashian to make an appearance at your nightclub). What's more interesting is the reaction, and what it says about the place Obama will occupy in the liberal imagination from this point on.

To understand why so many liberals would care so much—as opposed to just saying that Obama can take Wall Street's money if they're offering it, since as a former president it's not like he can be corrupted at this point—you have to go all the way back to 2008. Or more precisely, you have to understand what made Obama's 2008 candidacy so extraordinary, and so different from those that came before it. Even as we lived through eight complex, exciting, maddening, exhilarating, disappointing years, liberals' views of what Barack Obama represented will always be shaped by how he made them feel back then.

For nearly half a century after John F. Kennedy got elected, Democrats endured one underwhelming presidential nominee after another. Most of them were politicians with long records of public service, but not the kind of guys you'd name your baby after or see in a framed picture on the wall in your grandmother's house. They were often admirable, but almost never inspiring—the prevailing sentiment upon the nomination of candidates like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, or John Kerry was, "This guy? OK, I guess."

And the two Democrats who became president since the 1960s produced profound ambivalence: Jimmy Carter was personally admirable but a professional failure, while Bill Clinton was the reverse.

Then came 2008. In contrast to the dull candidates Democrats had so often resigned themselves to, Barack Obama was someone they would literally write songs about. Not only was he an extraordinary political talent, he was the living embodiment of liberal values. He was smart, thoughtful, eloquent, cosmopolitan, urban and urbane. In both his rhetoric and the way he built his campaign with brand-new social media tools, he told them a story of their own empowerment, that instead of watching history on TV they could make it with their hands and their will.

To liberals who had largely internalized the right's long insistence that this is a conservative country and if you live in a city or believe that knowing things is worthwhile then you aren't a "real" American, it was absolutely intoxicating.

Even though Obama's years in the White House were full of compromises and setbacks, that emotional connection lived on. If you're a liberal, he might have made decisions you disagreed with, but he was still the kind of guy you wanted to be: the one who displayed equanimity in the face of vicious personal attacks, who had a seemingly perfect family, who could bring Stevie Wonder and Prince to the White House for a secret concert or talk literature with Marilynne Robinson, who never lost his cool or stopped being cool.

And unlike every two-term president in recent history, he finished out his tenure without any significant scandals, and not even the whiff of inappropriate conduct of any sort by the man himself. That powerful feeling of 2008 may not have been sustained, but it was never betrayed.

And then came 2016 and Donald Trump, which both highlighted Obama's virtues and made liberals question what he had made them believe eight years earlier.

In 2008, liberals told themselves that everything was going to be all right. Their values and the change they wanted to see would triumph. The country was moving in their direction—becoming more inclusive, more tolerant, more progressive in a hundred ways. Despite the powerful resistance of the Republicans and their voters, they'd win in the end.

If that's what you believed, the 2016 election was a punch to the gut. The country—or at least an electoral college majority—said in a guttural growl, "No." It put on its "Trump That Bitch" t-shirt and said, "We want that guy. The charlatan, the con man, the phony, the clown, the ignoramus, the petulant, vindictive man-child, the bigot who cozies up to white supremacists, the xenophobe who scapegoats immigrants and wants to build walls, the guy who's on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. That's the guy we want." This country, the election result said to liberals, is not what you thought it was. It's not moving in your direction. You were fooling yourself.

And then we watched as Barack Obama, who had comported himself with such dignity and grace, handed the keys to the Oval Office to Donald frigging Trump.

In that history and that remarkable contrast lies the key to understanding liberals' current displeasure with Obama. If Hillary Clinton was now president, I doubt we'd be seeing a tenth of the concern about him giving speeches for money as there is now. But in a moment where everything in our politics is being sullied by the current president, we want Obama to be pure. We want him not just to do what's perfectly defensible, but to exist on some higher plane of virtue. Perhaps, in some irrational little corner of our minds, we want him to come back and save us. But of course, he can't.

I say this all not to defend Obama's decision to take some easy money. Had he asked my opinion, I'd have said he might want to take a pass—but I'd have also said that it doesn't matter much either way. What does matter is what he did with his time as president. That's a complex story, full of both successes and shortcomings. But liberals' view of him, and what he does with the rest of his life, will always be colored by the way he made them feel. 

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