Obama, Wall Street, and Identity politics

First, I completely agree with this Yglesias piece on it simply being bad politics for Obama to agree to take $400,000 for a speech from a Wall Street bank.  This absolutely undermines the larger liberal cause (as the reactions to Hillary Clinton make clear):

Former President Barack Obama’s decision to accept a $400,000 fee to speak at a health care conference organized by the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald is easily understood. That’s so much cash, for so little work, that it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to turn it down. And the precedent established by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to say nothing of former Federal Reserve Chairs Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and a slew of other high-ranking former officials, is that there is nothing wrong with taking the money.

Indeed, to not take the money might be a problem for someone in Obama’s position. It would set a precedent.

Obama would be suggesting that for an economically comfortable high-ranking former government official to be out there doing paid speaking gigs would be corrupt, sleazy, or both. He’d be looking down his nose at the other corrupt, sleazy former high-ranking government officials and making enemies.

Which is exactly why he should have turned down the gig.

The election in France earlier this week shows that the triumph of populist demagogues is far from inevitable. But to beat it, mainstream politicians and institutions need to shape up — not just with better policies, but with the kind of self-sacrificing spirit and moral leadership that successful movements require.

That means some people are going to have to start making less money and raising the ethical bar for conduct, rather than leveling down to the worst acts of their predecessors…

A counterproposal on the left is to reframe the populist theme and argue that middle-class Americans more generally are locked in a zero-sum conflict with rich people.

Obama and other center-left leaders around the world do not espouse that view primarily, I think, because they believe it is simplistic and wrong. But a crucial vulnerability of center-left politics around the world is that their sincere conviction — a faith in the positive-sum nature of cosmopolitan values and appropriately regulated forms of global capitalism, tempered by a welfare state — is easily mistaken for corruption. The political right is supposed to be pro-business as a matter of ideological commitment. The progressive center is supposed to be empirically minded, challenging business interests where appropriate but granting them free rein at other times.

This approach has a lot of political and substantive merits. But it is invariably subject to the objection: really?

Did you really avoid breaking up the big banks because you thought it would undermine financial stability, or were you on the take? Did you really think a fracking ban would be bad for the environment, or were you on the take? One man’s sophisticated and pragmatic approach to public policy can be the other man’s grab bag of corrupt opportunism…

Perhaps my wrongest take of the 2016 campaign was issued right before Election Day, when I acknowledged that in the abstract Nate Silver was right that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a lock in the Electoral College but dismissed Donald Trump’s chances anyway because of Obama’s high approval ratings. Undecided voters would never break for Trump under those circumstances, I thought, since Obama and Clinton were so ideologically similar.

And so they were. But the gap between them on issues of corruption and personal integrity was enormous. The Clinton family had earned tens of millions of dollars over the years thanks to buckraking speaking fees that raised fundamental questions in people’s minds about the motives of both their public policy and their philanthropic work. The Obama family hadn’t.

You see from the success of Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada (or before them Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark) that center-left politics remains perfectly viable around the world when its leaders are trusted.

Totally agree with all this.  Side-note: OMG if this isn’t evidence that the Finance industry is making way too much money I don’t know what is.  The fact that a single firm thinks it is remotely reasonable to spend $400,000 on a single speech is insane.  The entire marketplace around finance is evidently a failure of capitalism.

But, what I also find especially interesting is the amount of identity politics pushback, best encapsulated from a widely-shared Trevor Noah line, and addressed in a Ruth Marcus column:

Some readers will argue there is an unfair racial double standard in accepting that previous presidents have cashed in big time and demanding that Obama refrain from doing precisely what they have. “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards?” Trevor Noah asked on “The Daily Show” Thursday. “No, no, no, no, no, my friend. He can’t be the first of everything.”

Hogwash. This isn’t about holding the black guy to a higher standard — it’s about trying to hold everyone to a higher standard. Times have changed, and what was once placidly accepted as post-presidential business-as-usual may no longer be.

Yes, yes, yes!!  And Noah’s pushback is emblematic of a ton of similar comments I’ve seen.  Good Lord, not everything is about race and identity.  I think it was really stupid for Hillary Clinton to take all the Wall Street money.  And all the post-presidential cashing-in from Bill Clinton certainly contributes to an image of him as ethically compromised.  It is anyway racial that I want a higher-standard from Obama?  And, as Marcus points out, times have changed.  In a post-2016, post Occupy, post feel the Bern politics, it is just bad politics for Democrats of any stripe to let themselves be seen as compromised tools of Wall Street.  To suggest this has anything to do with the fact that Obama is a Black man is to transparently undermine the intellectual value of identity politics.

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