In one regard, I agree with former President Obama’s most zealous partisans: you can’t really blame the guy for cashing out. The pecuniary temptations of the post-presidency are unique; not even Silicon Valley offers so much no-strings cash for so very little actual work. Wall Street is awash in cash, and if some loony brokerage wants to part with roughly two weeks’ worth of its CEO’s annual compensation for the privilege of hearing a charming fellow mouth vague platitudes about the future of the present, then, well, as one of Obama’s twitter defenders put it, you can certainly imagine any number of far more awful things that they could do with the money. Ever since we declared George Washington a new Cincinnatus for his selfless decision to return to his mansion, his millions, and his slaves, Americans have vastly overestimated the moral rectitude and vastly under-accounted for the brazen tawdriness of our leaders. As one poorly-known novelist with whom I have a passing acquaintance once put it, “Never begrudge another man his successful scam.”
But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Obama’s defenders on this account are stupid and immoral. Obama’s promise was never much more than a brand, but good brand managers are mindful of the value of its goodwill. Regardless of whether he does or does not give overcompensated speeches to Wall Street, the Obamas will live in magisterial splendor for the rest of their lives; his pension alone represents twelve years of minimum wage labor; his and Michelle’s book deal, reportedly worth upwards of $60 million, represents approximately 1,200 years of earnings at the median household income in America. What makes his for-pay, Wall-Street speechifying so ethically odious is not that he’s taking their money per se; rather, it’s that he doesn’t need to. The worst impropriety is the unnecessary one.
In a strange way, I think Obama will be remembered both as one of America’s better presidents—he wasn’t a letch, he wasn’t a moron, and he managed to keep the sub rosa hum of our endless imperial wars ever so slightly abstracted from the persona that occupied the office—and one of its most disappointing. While he could never have been the radical break with the recent past that he appeared to promise, there was some minor hope—I even held it weakly myself—that his judicious temperament and his rarely used but still welcome capacity to occasionally prick the swollen edifice of his office, to laugh at it, might mean that he was something very slightly different than we’d seen before. Well, his defenders say when you start bitching about the money from the bank, everyone else has done it. To which the obvious reply is: yes, exactly.