Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Medium

The fact that Barack Obama will be paid $400,000 by Cantor Fitzgerald for a speech on health care seems to have created a bit of a firestorm. Matt Yglesias writes that “it undermines everything he believes in” and Josh Barro explains why he thinks the former president shouldn’t take Wall Street speaking fees.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren was asked what she thinks about it, she said that she was “troubled.” Warren’s remarks seem to capture the liberal angst about all this. She went on to say that money threatens our democracy. It would be helpful if she would clarify those remarks. Is she suggesting that Obama accepting money for a speech threatens democracy? If so, that is exactly the kind of insinuation I was referring to yesterday about how rhetoric that attacks someone’s moral principles or implies complicity is what divides us.

What is interesting to me about all of this is that it is an example about how the right weaponizes a story to create exactly that kind of division. Over the course of Obama’s presidency, I remember watching how things he did that were exactly what most previous presidents had done became fodder for scandal. The more mundane were about how many rounds of golf he played and whether or not he always wore a suit in the Oval Office. But things like executive orders and signing statements were all of the sudden the first steps on the pathway to tyranny. And yes, it’s amazing how fast that all turned around once Trump was elected.

When it comes to the story about Obama accepting speaking fees, it is important to note that the story was launched by Fox Business News. All of the sudden what previous presidents – both Democrat and Republican – had been doing for years was scandalized because we’re now talking about Obama. Our current so-called “populist” president once even bragged at a rally that he used to be paid a lot of money for speeches (as much as $1.5 million for a single speech).

Of course the folks at Fox knew this would trigger a dust-up on the left because of the fact that Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees had become such an issue in the 2016 primary. And of course, an awful lot of liberals took the bait.

I’m not saying that all of the arguments about speaking fees are without merit. Perhaps Democrats should have a proactive conversation about whether former presidents should continue to do so. But taking the bait Fox served up and using it to suggest that a particular former Democratic president is threatening our democracy is akin to the kind of circular firing squad for which Democrats have been famous over the years.

Beyond that, if people are going to zero in on the idea that one speech presents the “appearance” of collusion with Wall Street, perhaps it would behoove us to take a look at, not only the panel discussion Obama moderated at the University of Chicago Monday on the topic of civic engagement, but what he did the previous day as well – an event that no one but local Chicago papers reported.

Former President Barack Obama, on a two-day visit to Chicago that began Sunday, met privately with at-risk young men on the South Side to talk about gang violence, jobs skills and employment, a spokesman said.

The meeting was with participants in a program created by Obama’s longtime friend and former education secretary, Arne Duncan — and signified a return to Obama’s roots as a community organizer 30 years ago on the South Side.

“He said he grew up during that time because of the work he was doing,” Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said.

Now the former president wants to solicit ideas and information on “how we can turn things around” in areas hit hard by crime.

During the discussion, Obama asked the young men to share advice on how they think gang and gun violence can be reduced in Chicago, Lewis said…

According to Lewis, the former president and former first lady Michelle Obama plan to continue work with groups such as CRED through the Obama Foundation, which is building the future Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. It is slated to open in 2021.

The former first couple plans to partner with the private sector, nonprofits and governmental entities to tackle violence, poverty and unemployment in communities around the country, Lewis said.

For the people who think that accepting fees for a speech indicates an erosion of our democracy, they should at least acknowledge that former President Obama is actually spending the majority of his time working with young people on civic engagement as well as reducing violence, poverty and unemployment around the country. Otherwise they are simply getting played by Fox News.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.