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The Cost of Barack Obama’s Speech

Barack Obama leaving the Oval Office in January for the last time.

“I found myself spending time with people of means — law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists,”

Senator Barack Obama wrote in his book “The Audacity of Hope.” “As a rule, they were smart, interesting people. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale.”

He wrote in 2006:

“I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met. I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of … the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”

Is it a betrayal of that sentiment for the former president to have accepted a reported $400,000 to speak to a Wall Street firm? Perhaps not, but it is disheartening that a man whose historic candidacy was premised on a moral examination of politics now joins almost every modern president in cashing in. And it shows surprising tone deafness, more likely to be expected from the billionaires the Obamas have vacationed with these past months than from a president keenly attuned to the worries and resentments of the 99 percent.

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, began their post- The White House careers with twin book deals reported to be worth as much as $65 million. And why not? Mr. Obama is a pathbreaking figure and established writer whose two terms traversed a stormy period economically, militarily and diplomatically. Through his writing, Mr. Obama could shed important light on his decision making. As a couple and a family, the Obamas brought grace, empathy and high standards to their time in the White House, in stark contrast to the workaday vulgarity of its current occupants. Not many administration look-backs promise education and inspiration, and the Obamas’ books are much anticipated.

often at the corporate table. It’s not beyond imagining that Mr. Obama could break with a practice whose ills he observed so astutely, and which contributed to the downfall of the Democrat he hoped would cement his legacy. The tens of millions that Hillary Clinton raised from speaking to corporate interests most likely haunts her now — or should.

The Obamas are starting a foundation whose work will include “training and elevating a new generation of political leaders in America,” Eric Schultz, an Obama adviser, said in a statement. “President Obama will deliver speeches from time to time. Some of those speeches will be paid, some will be unpaid, and regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision, and his record.”

But why not elevate a new generation of political leaders and stay true to his values by giving his speech fees to his foundation and other charities focused on those goals?

The Democratic Party badly needs such an example to follow. As the presidential election clarified so painfully, the traditional party of working people has lost touch with them. In a poll released last week, more than two-thirds of voters, including nearly half of Democrats themselves, said the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of the American people. For the first time in memory, Democrats are seen as more out of touch with ordinary Americans than the party’s political opponents. There’s little doubt that Democratic leaders’ unseemly attachment to the party’s wealthiest donors contributed to that indictment.

From Mr. Barack Obama’s earliest days in government, he wrestled with what it means to be a representative public servant in an era of purchased influence. He didn’t always make the right decisions, he acknowledged. Now, as he commits to building future American leaders, we have the audacity to hope he’ll set a higher standard for past presidents.

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