BY JONATHAN EASLEY – 05/03/17
Former President Barack Obama’s speaking fees have become a flashpoint in the debate over the future of the Democratic Party.
Obama remains enormously popular on the left, but he has nonetheless come under fire from progressives who are angered by his decision to accept $400,000 from financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald for a speech at a healthcare conference in September.
The issue has renewed tensions between liberals and mainstream Democrats that emerged during the bitter 2016 primary contest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who campaigned hard against the influence of money in politics.
Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have both registered their disappointment with Obama, showing that not even the most revered Democrat in the country can escape the populist wrath.
Mainstream Democrats are frustrated by the criticism, arguing that Obama is now a private citizen who should be free to pursue new opportunities. They say the left is increasingly holding liberal politicians to an unreasonable standard that divides the party and distracts from the work of opposing President Trump’s agenda.
Progressives say that Democrats are again missing the lessons they should have learned in 2016.
Nina Turner, a former Sanders surrogate, said that it’s time Democrats wrestle with Obama’s legacy, which includes Wall Street executives in top advisory roles and a sharp rise in income inequality.
Turner said that money in politics will be a bellwether issue for liberal candidates in 2018 and beyond as emboldened progressives look to build on Sanders’s insurgent campaign.
“President Obama may not be in politics anymore, but he’s very much a symbol of what Democrats stand for, and so people are disappointed by this,” Turner said.
“It’s not the right synergy for the former Democratic president to be taking money from the enemy. Americans believe that the more money you have, the more access you get, and now our beloved president is proving them right. Progressives want something to be done about this, about Citizens United, and we will absolutely judge our candidates on these issues.”
The criticism seems to bother Obama, whose office put out a lengthy statement last week noting that the speech is at a healthcare forum and that his insights are particularly valuable as someone who signed a historic healthcare reform law.
Senior adviser Eric Schultz said Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history and yet “still went on to successfully pass and implement the toughest reforms on Wall Street since [President Franklin D. Roosevelt].”
That’s the same argument Clinton made at a debate against Sanders in Brooklyn last year, when she said attacks over her paid speeches were actually an attack against Obama, who ran with the help of a super PAC and millions of dollars from Wall Street.
Speaking fees were a major liability for Clinton in that contest, as Sanders cast her as beholden to big banks and other special interests. In one damaging exchange, Clinton said she accepted $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for a speech because “that’s what they offered.”
The issue energized Sanders’s progressive base and dogged Clinton through the general election campaign against Trump.
Some believe Sanders’s attacks dampened enthusiasm for Clinton among Democrats who stayed home in November.
Obama’s defenders say that Clinton — who together with husband Bill Clinton was paid tens of millions of dollars for private speeches — should have known better because she was preparing to run for the White House. Obama, they say, has no such responsibility.
“It’s completely different from what Hillary did,” said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “Nobody ever thought it was a good idea for her to do that before she ran. It created a problem for her and would’ve created a problem for anybody. It’s completely different from what Obama is doing.”
Some Democrats are frustrated that it’s taking longer than expected to forge an alliance between the centrist and liberal wings of the party.
New Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has been on a nationwide unity tour with Sanders and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the Sanders-backed candidate whom Perez defeated to become chairman.
Their effort to heal party divisions has at times been undermined by Democratic infighting over who is to blame for the disastrous 2016 election and what the party must do to recover from it.
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said progressives are wasting energy holding liberals to purity tests when they should be uniting against the shared enemy in the White House.
“The outrage aimed at Obama is going in the wrong direction,” Simmons said. “It’s a purity test, and sometimes our friends on the left hold people to a purity test that’s too strict for our own good. Figuring out how best to oppose Donald Trump and coming up with a positive Democratic message should be enough of a to-do list for progressives. We don’t need to worry about what former politicians are doing.”
That argument is not sitting well on the left.
Obama has been pilloried in the liberal press, with media outlet Vox’s Matthew Yglesias declaring that the payday “will undermine everything he believes in” and should be rejected as part of the fight against “populist demagogues” such as Trump.
Others say that the last thing Democrats need right now is to be viewed as the party of Wall Street, or to lose credibility on an issue that would open the door for Republicans to brand them as faux-populists.
“[Obama] is showing his stripes and, in my opinion, exercising extremely bad political judgment,” said Winnie Wong, a grassroots organizer for Sanders. “Accepting 400K from the very same corporate healthcare lobbyists who wrote the [Affordable Care Act] during a time when a plurality of American voters are in favor of Medicare for all is about as stupid as it gets.”
Progressive willingness to go after Obama, who was once untouchable, is evidence of their newfound political strength since Sanders’s White House run.
Obama’s critics point to an ABC News-Washington Post poll that found two-thirds of the public believes Democrats are out of touch with ordinary Americans, while only 58 percent said the same about Trump.
“This is not a purity test, this is what the country is in rebellion against,” said progressive activist Jonathan Tasini.
“It’s not about Obama’s personal probity or ethics, it’s about the influence-peddling that the nation is rebelling against, and Democrats are utterly tone deaf if they can’t see that.”