A new poll shows fully two-thirds of the American public agrees with this statement: “The Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of most people.”
And scarcely more than one in four Democrats themselves think the party understands most people’s everyday concerns.
It was also just announced that Barack Obama, following in the well-heeled footsteps of Bill and Hillary Clinton, will be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for giving a speech on behalf of a Wall Street firm.
Anyone who thinks these two facts aren’t connected isn’t paying attention. Obama’s payday reflects a longstanding pattern of behavior from Democratic leaders: Talk like liberals, govern from the center, and make a lot of money once you’re out of office.
Their policies better than Trump’s and the GOP’s, but that adds even more bite to that poll’s other major finding: Democrats are viewed as even more out of touch with everyday concerns than Trump, a twitter-happy billionaire president who weekends at his palatial estate.
Democrats need a better message, to be sure. But they also need messengers who will walk the walk after they have talked the talk.
Barack Obama’s $400,000 speaking fee, from investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Obama courted Wall Street leaders like Jamie Dimon, CEO of scandal-plagued serial lawbreaker JP Morgan Chase, until it became politically unfeasible to do so during his re-election campaign. (Dimon was once described as Obama’s “favorite banker.”)
In 2009, after Wall Street’s criminality shattered the economy and ruined millions of American lives, Obama famously told Wall Street’s top CEOs, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
In the years that followed, Obama’s Justice Department failed to prosecute a single bank executive for that criminality. Even when regulators identified the individuals responsible for criminal behavior, as they did with GE Capital, the Justice Department failed to follow up.
For his part, Obama appointed the CEO of GE Capital’s parent corporation to a prestigious economic position.
Obama chose Wall Street-friendly figures Eric Holder and Tim Geithner to lead the Justice and Treasury departments, respectively. He then followed Bill Clinton’s lead by overseeing a revolving door between his administration and Wall Street’s biggest banks (most notably Citigroup, the banking behemoth forged in a merger pushed by top appointees in the Clinton Administration).
As the nation has learned under Donald Trump, a president’s pronouncements can have a powerful effect on legal actions. When Obama pre-emptively declared that Wall Street executives had not broken the law – an opinion not shared by experts like William K. Black, Jr. – that very possibly had a chilling effect on prosecutors in the field. It certainly sent a signal to lower-level appointees in his own Justice Department.
It may be overly cynical to see these large fees as payment for services rendered, but Obama’s record on these matters – like Bill Clinton’s before him – certainly didn’t help that perception. At best, these speeches reflect the insular worldview of privileged insiders who neither understand nor fully empathize with the victims of lawbreaking bankers.
Dozens of those victims reached out to me in 2010, when I first began writing on the subject, and their emails were heartbreaking. (Their plight was well-documented in David Dayen’s book, Chain of Title.)
Millions of Americans have either been defrauded by an American bank or know someone who has been. They have seen the Democratic Party’s three most prominent leaders – two ex-presidents, along with a former First Lady, senator, two-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State – earn millions by hobnobbing with the same bankers who ruined their lives, their friends’ lives, or their communities.
Now, Barack Obama is joining their ranks. Cantor Fitzgerald suffered unspeakable tragedy on 9/11. But it has also been fined for a number of violations of the law. One fine was levied for selling unregistered shares and failing to check for money laundering. Another was aiding and abetting fraud. Another, record-setting fine was imposed on a Cantor subsidiary for illegal betting in Las Vegas.
Then there’s the speech’s setting, which is typically described as Cantor’s “annual healthcare conference.” It is a healthcare investment conference, where wealthy investors and for-profit healthcare corporations mingle in pursuit of mutually advantageous deals. The press release for the first conference explains:
“The full-day conference will provide institutional investors with access to over 70 public and private healthcare companies, and an opportunity to explore investment opportunities and learn about current major healthcare topics.”
At a time when the Affordable Care Act is fighting for its life, Obama will be speaking to a group of business people, including pharmaceutical corporations, who have gathered to make money from our nation’s beleaguered healthcare economy.
For-profit healthcare isn’t the solution to our health crisis: it’s a principal cause.
And yet, many Democratic loyalists refuse to see a connection between behavior like this and the Democratic Party’s low polling numbers and electoral failures at all levels.
A typical exchange: The New Republic’s Brian Beutler responded to criticism of Obama’s speaking fee and a recent publicity campaign for Chelsea Clinton by tweeting, “Chelsea shouldn’t run, Obama shouldn’t buckrake, the obsession with them as the Trumps set up a bribery fund is giving me campaign PTSD.”
That is consistent with the often-expressed opinion that Democrats shouldn’t “re-litigate” the 2016 Democratic primary race.
Nobody wants to induce needless trauma. And yet, however painful it may be for some to consider, the Democrats have a problem: fully two-thirds of the American people feel that they don’t understand their problems.
Many Democrats remain fiercely loyal to Obama and the Clintons, and they can be surprisingly protective of their leaders. They need to understand that these high-dollar Wall Street paydays undermine confidence in their party. They alienate "persuadables" and make it less likely that the Democratic base will show up to vote in sufficient numbers. (So does the appearance that elected office is a familial privilege, but that is a topic for another day.)
It is not “obsession” that leads people to criticize this behavior, pace Beutler, but a desire to stop Trump's GOP and the recognized need for better policy. Like it or not, the behavior of top Democrats reflects on the party, and their coziness with the wealthy limits their ability to propose truly transformative economic ideas.
What’s to be done? The solution is already visible to all those who care to see: Run candidates who have no interest in flattering the ultra-wealthy or becoming wealthy themselves. Bernie Sanders is the most conspicuous example – there is a reason why he’s the most popular politician in the country today – but there are others.
Two members of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, are activists who take a movement-oriented approach to elected office. (Here’s a video interview on that subject with Rep. Jayapal.)
The citizen-candidates who came forward during the recent Rise Up conference (shown here with Sen. Bernie Sanders), together with those recruited by Our Revolution and other grassroots groups, represent a new wave of politician/activists. Candidates like these send a clear signal to voters: We are not career politicians, we don’t see elected office as a stepping stone to wealth, and know that it will take a deep political transformation to meet the everyday concerns of most Americans.