What Trumpcare and Obama’s $400,000 speaking fee have in common

Former President Barack Obama accepts the 2017 Profile in Courage award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Former President Barack Obama accepts the 2017 Profile in Courage award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Last week the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a hugely unpopular bill that could cause tens of millions to lose health insurance, paving the way for a tax cut that would mostly benefit a handful of wealthy families. And last month The New York Times reported that former Democratic president Barack Obama will accept $400,000 for speaking at a conference organized by the Wall Street investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald. It was also reported that Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, will collect $60 million for writing their memoirs.

Almost no one in the exclusive circles of New York and Washington is upset about both of these things; partisanship demands the reflexive defense of either Mr. Obama or House Speaker Paul Ryan. But for most Americans, the toxic health care bill and the Wall Street payout are both of a piece, reaffirming that our leaders in both parties are afflicted with both an insatiable acquisitiveness and a disregard for popular opinion.

The denunciations of the American Health Care Act (a.k.a. Trumpcare) have been fast and frequent, with many of the harshest reactions coming from Catholic leaders. Sister Carol Keehan, chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association, said, “This bill will hurt millions of working Americans very seriously and it has been only made worse with amendments.” A poll from March indicated that only 17 percent of U.S. voters approved of the Republicans’ plan to replace the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), and that was before the bill was amended to weaken the protections against health insurers charging higher premiums on the basis of pre-existing conditions.

Mr. Obama’s speaking fee does not have the potential to wreck people’s lives, but it does help explain why the Democratic Party has no advantage on issues of economic fairness.

Mr. Obama’s speaking fee does not have the same potential to wreck people’s lives, but it does help explain why the Democratic Party has no advantage on issues of economic fairness even as it fights a rollback of health care protections. The New York Times editorialized that the $400,000 fee “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.” David V. Johnson, writing in The Baffler, went further, arguing that “Obama is positively affirming his ties to Wall Street and corporate interests: Unlike the Sanders left, I am willing to work with you, and so will the Democratic Party, so long as I have sway.”

The Democratic Party cannot ignore such criticism. A Washington Post poll released on April 27 found that 67 percent of U.S. adults agreed that the Democratic Party is “out of touch” with “the concerns of most people” (and 44 percent of self-identified Democrats felt this way!), compared with 62 percent saying the same of the Republican Party and 58 percent saying it about President Trump. A poll of voters who switched from Mr. Obama in 2012 to Mr. Trump in 2016, conducted by a Democratic political action committee, found 42 percent believing that the policies of congressional Democrats favored the wealthy, compared with 40 percent saying the same about Republicans.

Yet many cosmopolitans find it distasteful to even talk about how Mr. Obama is making money. The resistance to President Trump demands unity, the thinking goes, and every Facebook update on Mr. Obama’s wealth is diverting attention from the outrages committed by his successor. That is, in order to fight the “normalization” of Mr. Trump’s demagogic speech and actions, we must accept the normalization of winner-take-all, superstar economics.

There is also the argument that any criticism of Mr. Obama is rooted in a racist double standard, made most forcefully by Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” On his April 27 program, Mr. Noah addressed the “haters” who “may say that it weakens public trust when politicians cash in immediately after leaving office.” In a segment shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, he asked: “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? No, no, no, no, no, my friend. He can't be the first of everything. F— that, and f— you.”

During last year’s campaign, there was a similar defense of Hillary Clinton’s six-figure speaking fees from the investment firm Goldman Sachs after she left the State Department: that it was sexist to criticize her when previous Democratic leaders had also taken money from Wall Street. There is a kind of trickle-down identity politics at work here, in which whatever benefits Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton is assumed to benefit all black Americans and all women.

There is a kind of trickle-down identity politics at work here, in which whatever benefits Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton is assumed to benefit all black Americans and all women.

It bears keeping in mind that Mr. Noah, who reportedly bought a $10 million penthouse in midtown Manhattan earlier this year, is not paid to improve the image of the Democratic Party but to attract advertisers to a television program that targets younger and more urban viewers—and, like John Oliver, he provides a harmless cathartic experience to some fans but merely feeds the self-righteousness of other viewers.

Mr. Noah’s indignation notwithstanding, working-class Americans have been grousing for generations about the salaries of top politicians, athletes, actors and other celebrities. I recall my parents and their contemporaries complaining about how much talk-show host Johnny Carson and basketball player Larry Bird made for what looked like easy jobs. They were incensed when Gerald Ford broke tradition and started trading in on his White House tenure. (“The guy pardoned Nixon, and now he’s getting rich off it!!”)

This was when blue-collar households still leaned Democratic, and the Democratic Party regularly put forth candidates who made a point of looking out of place at black-tie fundraisers, including House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the portly guy from the poor side of Cambridge who, unlike Mr. Ryan, did not look like he could bench-press a Buick. Mr. O’Neill claimed a net worth of $180,000 at the height of his power in 1978—or $670,000 in today’s dollars, still a shamefully low amount when most members of Congress are millionaires.

It should not be surprising if voters conclude that the real differences between candidates have to do with cultural issues and “values.”

Today most candidates for federal office, from both parties, are many times wealthier than the average voter. It should not be surprising if voters conclude that the real differences between candidates have to do with cultural issues and “values.” It drives many liberals crazy when poor voters in Kentucky “vote against their economic self-interest”—maybe by voting against the party that seems oblivious of fly-over country rather than the party that cuts health care benefits—but Democrats do that all the time, not choosing the candidates who will benefit them economically but instead opting for candidates who use the most inclusionary rhetoric or have the most environmentally correct habits. Pro-choice voters are allowed to make abortion a litmus test, but pro-life voters are considered obtuse when they do the same. Liberals voice astonishment when low-income voters choose a candidate like John McCain, who can’t remember how many houses he owns, then they say that how Democrats earn their money is no one’s business.

There are plenty of examples from the current health care debate of Republicans demonstrating obliviousness of how most people live. Defending his vote for the G.O.P. bill last week, Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican from Idaho, scoffed at constituents at a town hall and said, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” Previously, Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, defended higher health insurance premiums for people with pre-existing conditions by saying that healthy people who lead “good lives” should not have to pay as much. The cumulative effect of such statements may seriously hurt the Republicans in next year’s elections, as voters conclude the party is out of touch with the average American household. Mr. Obama will not be on the ballot again, but he still commands more respect than any leader in the Democratic Party. If he is seen as selling out to Wall Street, the Democrats will lose a powerful voice who could otherwise help them regain some of the voters who abandoned him last fall.

ANN JOHNSON
2 months 2 weeks ago

If memory serves, did I just read that the Obamas had donated $2M to Chicago for a summer jobs program?

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Ann - I believe the Clintons are currently the richest post-presidents. But, the Obamas are well on their way to be the richest of all time (with the $60M book deal) - and will probably make more than all past presidents together, ironically, to match Obama's record setting national debt - increased more than all past presidents counted together. There will of course be multiple press releases of donations to various causes to placate the critics. But, keep an eye on how much is made, and how quickly liberals come to his defense crying racism etc.

I really do not have a problem with Obama making as much as he can, since I was never under the illusion that Democrats were any different than Republicans when it comes to money. It is just that Democrats prefer to make money by taking it from others, usually under some spurious fairness or justice excuse.

I note Iowa, Delaware and Nebraska are losing Aetna this year, under the current Obamacare law, and already, premiums will rise massively again this year. Trump got into office by having no political experience and his political ignorance is on display every day, so it is unlikely anything like Trumpcare ever becomes law. Trump lies every day, but so does the media who covers him, every day (CNN is now like Hannity of the left, 24:7). Two lies always made by the media:. 1) People who refuse to buy insurance except when forced to (with fines, the Obamacare way) are said to "lose" health insurance, 2) A reduction in a future growth (e.g. of Medicare) is called a cut. And the gullible religious naifs fall for it every time.

Michael Seredick
2 months 2 weeks ago

Neither party owns integrity and honestly as long as human beings are on their rosters. We are all selfish by nature. Generosity and honesty are learned virtues. Beyond that, no mention is made of what former President Obama will discuss at his paid speech. Maybe the message will be worth the gratuity? I also wonder what other name brand professionals make for a speech? How about University Commencement speakers? Can you get Tim Cook/Apple at a bargain price? I doubt it . Finally, it costs mega-bucks to live in DC or NYC and everyone is on a different pay scale that seems out of line with most of the nation. Other than politicians, I'm also greatly upset with my recent plumber costs to get my toilet working again. That sentence leads me back to politics, a rather crappy endeavor involving imperfect, greedy human beings.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mr Sullivan does a decent job of pointing out the tone deafness of both sides of the aisle.
But he skips over one of the most egregious problems with some very high profile Democratic politicians who claim to represent or promote expanding and funding the government social safety net. For instance both Joe Biden and Al Gore have been loud champions of these programs and expanded federal funding. Yet both of them have abysmal records of personal charitable contributions. Prior to his run for President Joe Biden averaged a total charitable contribution of about $375 per year for the prior ten years. Al Gore's giving patterns have been similarly paltry. There is a level of hypocrisy there that calls into question more than "being tone deaf". The fact that Biden now wants to sponsor a Foundation for Cancer Research hardly cures the problem although it may paper over the past history, It remains to be seen how much of his own money will be donated to this Foundation.
I have no objection to a politician not giving to charity but he shouldn't preach or require such giving, by forced taxation or otherwise. Similarly I gave no objection to President Obama giving paid speeches except that he was so critical of others involved with such activity; recall his reference to his current speech patrons as " fat cat bankers"

E.Patrick Mosman
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mr Sullivan makes an apples to oranges comparison with the House of Representatives voting to repeal and replace a much maligned and even a failure in many respects Obamacare to fulfill the promise to their constituents who elected them to the moneygrubbing actions of the Obama's. The democrats and their media friends fail to report on the many failures of Obamacare which was built and passed on a bundle of lies articulated by a glib President and the architects of the program without a single Republican vote.

THOMAS Heyman
2 months 2 weeks ago

Once again we have a gratuitous attack on President Obama from America. Mr. Sullivan ignores the two million charitable contribution from the Obamas referred to by Ann Johnson. Why does Mr. Sullivan not spend time pointing out the vicious assault on healthcare carried out by the Republicans to enrich themselves with a huge tax cut. It is another example of America's war with the Obamas and their kid glove approach to Republican and Catholics like Ryan and McCarthy who in every legislative action violate the Lord's call to social justice for all. As to the clear cupidity in the House's vote on Health care see this link to
Warren Buffet's analysis. Clear and simply put a Brink's heist of a tax cut on the backs of the poor and needy. .
https://nyti.ms/2ponbVz

Wanda Martinez Rey
2 months 2 weeks ago

Fidel Castro provided "health care".
Adolf Hitler improved the cultural arts in Germany
European settlers provided jobs to unemployed Africans and a free trip to the New World
Josef Stalin created jobs and housing in Siberia
The Atomic Bomb generated energy
Georgetown University paid some wages to their slaves
See where this is going?

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

passed a hugely unpopular bill that could cause tens of millions to lose health insurance,

I am sorry Mr. Sullivan but no one is going to lose health insurance due to the AHCA.. Why do you distort things about Republicans? Any bill will cause some to pay less, some to pay more but no where is there anything in the current bill that will cause people to lose the ability to get insurance. Pre existing conditions have been taken care of. Debate over how much to subsidize low income people has produced amendments to the bill. If some are severely disadvantaged then this will probably be taken care of in future adjustments to the bill.

But no one, I repeat no one will lose the ability to get insurance. They may chose not to buy insurance but no one will be refused insurance. If the cost of the insurance is onerous for some then the discussion should be on how many and how much the onerous cost will be. Sometimes we are talking about a very small number of people when the discussions seems we are talking about a large part of the population.

The objectives of the AHCA is lower cost insurance and more options. Whether that happens or not is in how people respond to it. One thing is sure is that people will dramatize an anecdote they can find to make the Republicans look bad. I have a question, why do you incessantly do this?

Also I believe Obama just received about 3 million dollars to speak in Milan but the cost was much more since he required about 30 cars and a helicopter as security and two floors of a first class hotel. I believe the Obama foundation based on the Clinton formula is in the final steps of planning.

THOMAS Heyman
2 months 2 weeks ago

It is pure sophistry to assert that under Trumpcare "no one will lose the ability to get health insurance". Such a factually insupportable position flies in the face of the non-partisan CBO scoring of the previous bill that over 20 million people would lose health insurance due to their inability to pay for it. among other things the bill will gut Medicaid expansion , designed to help the most vulnerable in our society. Finally, many of the most voluble supporters are the 217 Republican congress persons many earning far more than 250 K in income subject to the 3.8% tax . I hear no Justification for doing away with this tax , which hits those who can pay to help those who cannot and will destroy one of the very reasonable financial pillars on which the ACA was based. In what part of the gospels did Jesus approve of the rich getting richer.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

It is pure sophistry to assert that under Trumpcare "no one will lose the ability to get health insurance". Such a factually insupportable position flies in the face of the non-partisan CBO scoring of the previous bill that over 20 million people would lose health insurance due to their inability to pay for it. among other things the bill will gut Medicaid expansion ,

Nothing I said was untrue. If the truth is sophistry then we are in a curious state. The people without health insurance are doing so voluntarily. No one is forcing one out of insurance. The reason they will opt out is it is too expensive and they get little from it so why should they buy it. That is why the CBO estimated 24 million in 10 years but the CBO fails to account for the likely alternatives. And the CBO has been wildly wrong before.

So the answer is to provide an alternative inexpensive insurance for catastrophic costs and have the person pay for the incidental medical cost they incur. This is what Obamacare does except it creates plans with both high deductibles and high premiums. Others can choose a more expensive insurance that will cover most of every day medical costs such as provided by employer plans.

There are different ways of averting the problems with the current system. One is a Health Savings Account which would have high deductibles but would have low premiums. Money for medical care would accrue tax free if not used and would be available in future years.

Essentially the issue is how expensive is it to cover catastrophic costs. The objective is to deliver health care without bankrupting the person or family and not force the person to abandon medical care to take care of other essentials.

John Walton
2 months 2 weeks ago

Who is tone deaf? Maybe the folks who didn't listen to my employees grouse that their health care insurance cost went up three-fold, and that deductibles for most went over $6,000. The effect of the law was to deny coverage to a vast swath of the middle class.

The 20mm people statistic refers to those who are not mandated to carry coverage after passage of the law (still in progress).

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 2 weeks ago

We need a revolution of those who know how to live simply, but well. Neighborhoods of friendly people and simple homes, well cared for, with vegetable gardens in the yard. Public art & music. Things that do not cost money should be CELEBRATED! Shame the dead McMansion neighborhoods and shuttered oceanfront condos. The gaudy luxury. Reject the insane grab for more and more money. Return to the earth. Reclaim your God-given home & paradise.

Emmett Burke
1 month 3 weeks ago

I voted for Obama but think his 400k speech a betrayal. Yet he did get some bank controls in place. The 60 million fee for a memoir is a different kettle of fish. If a publisher thinks there is a market, that seems perfectly ok. But why go for a 400k fee when your getting 60 million?
The 100 million Saudi donation to Ivanka Trumps unnamed foundation is pure bribery. More attention should be paid to that. Also the visit to Saudi Arabia seemed to be war mongering. Yes both figurative and phony sabre rattling. No human rights for Saudi's no peace in Yemen, let's go arm up for attacking Iran.

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