Defenders of Barack Obama’s decision to do things like accept a $400,000 check for a speech to a Wall Street brokerage house argue that the former president might as well cash in — everyone else does.
That was Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s defense of Obama. “People are like why doesn’t he not accept the money? No, f*** that,” Noah said. “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? No no no my friend. He can’t be the first of everything! F*** that, and f*** you. Make that money, Obama!”
This argument, while common, is based on historical ignorance. It assumes that presidents have always found a way to leverage their political connections post-presidency to make money from interest groups and wealthy political actors.
But that isn’t the case.
It used to be the norm for presidents to retire to ordinary life after their stint in the White House — just ask Harry Truman.
When the Democratic president was getting ready to leave the White House in 1953, he was approached by many employers. The Los Angeles Times noted that if he was “unemployed after he leaves the White House it won’t be for lack of job offers … but [he] has accepted none of them.”
One of those job offers was from a Florida real estate developer, asking him to become a “chairman, officer, or stockholder, at a figure of not less than $100,000” — the sort of position that is commonplace today for ex-politicians. Presumably, had Truman taken the position, it would have been a good deal for both parties: the president’s prestige and connections would also enrich the company.
Truman declined. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency,” he wrote of his refusal to influence-peddle.
Although he had access to a small pension from his military service, Truman had little financial support after leaving office. He moved back into his family home in Independence, Mo., and insisted on being treated like anyone else. He would tell people not to call him “Mr. President,” and settled on a fairly ordinary routine once he was back in Independence. He would take a morning walk through the town square. He kept an office nearby where he would answer mail from Americans. He chose to engage with just about anyone who walked into his office — not only people who wrote him big checks, or invited him onto their private yachts and private islands.
“Many people,” he once said, “feel that a president or an ex-president is partly theirs — they are right to some extent — and that they have a right to call upon him.” Indeed, his office number was even listed in a nearby telephone directory.
He eventually agreed to write a memoir for Life magazine, but it was a lengthy project that provided far from luxurious stipends.
Truman’s modest life post-presidency moved Congress in 1958 to establish a pension system that provides an annual cash payout as well as expenses for an office and staff.
Gerald Ford nevertheless shattered precedent when he joined the boards of corporations such as 20th Century Fox, hit the paid speech circuit, and was made an honorary director by Citigroup.
But his successor, Jimmy Carter, who grew up in a modest home in Plains, Georgia, did not follow Ford’s example. He refused to become a professional paid speaker or join corporate boards. He moved back to Plains, and was welcomed home by a crowd of neighbors and supporters.
He quickly made himself busy as a nonprofit founder and a volunteer diplomat. He did make money post-presidency — but by serving ordinary people, not elites.
He wrote dozens of best-selling books bought by millions of people across the world — the post-presidency equivalent of small donors.
Carter explained his thinking to the Guardian in 2011, telling them that his “favorite president, and the one I admired most, was Harry Truman. When Truman left office he took the same position. He didn’t serve on corporate boards. He didn’t make speeches around the world for a lot of money.”
The presidents who came after did not choose the same path. At a time when Japan was a major trade rival with the United States, Ronald Reagan flew to Japan for a series of paid speeches after he left office. He accepted $2 million for a pair of 20-minute speeches to the Fujisankei Communications Group. An additional $5 million was arranged for expenses related to the visit.
Both Bushes also joined the paid speech circuit, and the Clintons made over $100 million from banks and other corporations, shortly after the Clinton presidency deregulated Wall Street. “I never made any money until I left the White House,” Bill Clinton lamented to a student group in 2009. “I had the lowest net worth, adjusted for inflation, of any president elected in the last 100 years, including President Obama. I was one poor rascal when I took office. But after I got out, I made a lot of money.”
Obama was hardly facing poverty. He already has a $65 million book deal and that $200,000 annual pension.
By joining the paid speech circuit — his spokesperson Eric Schultz told the press that paid speechmaking will be a fixture for the former president — Obama was making a conscious choice.
Obama could have been like Truman or Carter, but instead chose to be like Bush and Clinton.
Top photo: Former President Barack Obama listens as participants speak during a forum at the University of Chicago, on April 24, 2017.