President Obama’s Paid Speech — and the solution to what it might suggest

Thought this was a pretty good editorial by the NYT and it’s an interesting issue. On the one hand, as anyone who has been to law school might know, racial minorities often feel a “public interest burden” — as though doing anything other than working in the public or non-profit sector would be selling out. I think it’s a bad thing because it discourages racial minorities from going into the private sector and the highest paying jobs and joining the ranks of the economic elite, which then fuels the statistics about all the disparities. I’m worried that a lot of the resentment of President Obama’s paid speech implicitly reflects some version of this expectation — that racial minorities or frankly anyone in the public interest community (even at the highest levels — especially at the highest levels?) have some additional burden not carried by their peers. What President Obama is doing, everyone else has done.

On the other hand, the Democratic party is under pretty significant threat. It’s not because it’s not liberal enough (a very strange and counterintuitive conclusion to draw from the country electing Trump). It’s because people feel like it lacks authenticity; like a chatbot, it’s responding with prewired talking points rather than engaging and having the kind of openness and passion that makes for a compelling conversation. Part of this is the polarization and gerrymandering problem, where winning elections is all about singing talking points to the choir. But a lot of it is a cultural problem among elites. Unlike the Obama 08 campaign, which was full of upstarts and dreamers and people excited about changing politics and people who have never engaged in politics, the Democratic Party’s brand now is more what was reflected in Podesta’s leaked emails — a small network of people who for the most part know each other, went to elite schools, come from money, and do each other favors. There’s nothing wrong with being in that category. People who have done well and who have connections and know how things work are very useful. A lot of them should be in government. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of assuring everyone else that you’re there for the right reason — because you enjoy solving problems, because you’re good at it, and because you know the pain and feel the pain of unsolved problems — or at the cost of reassuring people that you’re there as much for them as anyone else. Not because you’re part of some ecosystem that benefits from the power (a big part of Trump’s campaign for the presidency — whether or not it’s true — was “I don’t need this; I’m not here because I need this”). In today’s world, giving speeches in exchange for incredible sums of money isn’t a great look. Not because you’re making money. It’s because it implies something about access — and in doing so, it reaffirms the widespread worry that some people matter more than other people. It’s one thing if you have to be in a special setting to see a celebrity; it’s entirely different when it feels that way about someone who was supposed to represent you. Even if you’ve been a public servant your whole life — it says something about your availability if, now that you are where you are, people have to pay you $400,000 to show up.

The Obama family book deals are rumored to be worth well over $50mm (NYT suggests $65mm) — and I agree with the NYT that a book deal is good for everyone. From a financial perspective the Obamas are good to go. So it feels like it’s not in the interest of his ideas or his legacy to be giving speeches for money. But if I were advising him, and he really wanted to take the money, I’d say sure, take it, but now you should work hard to undo what it might imply — that the rich can buy access to you while everyone else can only hope. One way to do that is to just become a lot more accessible. It’s not just about releasing video or transcripts of these kinds of speeches. Get creative and ambitious about being more accessible, so that your presence everywhere undermines the idea that your presence anywhere is the product of limited access. Drive around the country and go to local restaurants and schools and bars and coffee shops and markets — one at a time, one day at a time — and just talk to anyone who wants to talk. Have more conversations. My guess is a lot of people would love to talk, and a lot of good could come from those conversations — even for President Obama, and especially for his ideas.