STOP. THE. PRESSES.
A former U.S. president making money off his experience?
How dare he?!
And the comments of people (I know, I know…you’re not supposed to read the comments) range from, “Doesn’t he have enough money?” and “Obama does not need the money and should not accept it” to “Obama the hypocrite.”
The New York Times editorial has this to say:
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.
But here’s the thing: President Obama’s two terms traversed a stormy period economically, militarily, and diplomatically.
He has experience only four other people in this world have.
Why wouldn’t he deserve to make what the market will bear to pay him?
What Other Presidents Have Made Speaking
When President Clinton left office, he reportedly was paid $700,000—twice—to speak in Nigeria.
The most he was paid was $750,000 to speak in Hong Kong.
Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator, was paid $675,000 to speak at an event for Goldman Sachs.
President George W. Bush makes between $100,000 and $175,000 per speech, and he’s done as many as 200 events since leaving office.
(You can do the math.)
Presidents Bush, Reagan, and Carter all made $50,000 or more per speech, after leaving office.
Even Rudy Guiliani and Sarah Palin pull down the big bucks—$270,000 and $115,000, respectively—for speeches given at the height of their popularity.
And why shouldn’t they?
We live in a democracy that values capitalism.
And people, no matter how much money they already have, deserve to be paid for their time.
The Speaking Industry
Speaking for money is a very large industry.
Many people participate in it—journalists, influencers, professors, former politicians, consultants of all stripes.
Not to mention the people who work with speakers, such as speaking bureaus and agents, to place them at events for all sorts of industries.
Many of us, myself included, participate in this industry.
The fees, just in the marketing space, range all over the place.
Those who work for large corporations—aren’t allowed to take speaking fees.
And others make $20,000-$50,000 per speech and this is their livelihood.
It’s a very lucrative field.
Well-known Speakers Make Events Money
This is the way it works: The more in-demand you are, the more someone values having you at their event.
Because you’re a name that will draw a rabid and engaged fan base, you will help the event producers sell more tickets.
And, because the event will sell more tickets, the more likely it is they’ll make up—and then some—the speaking fee.
If you have $5,000 or $10,000, you’d settle on someone like me who is less well-known in the bigger market, but has a very engaged community in a certain niche.
There are only so many former presidents…and only so many people who have name recognition by every single human being in this world.
In the case of Cantor Fitzgerald, they’re fairly confident they’ll make a profit on having President Obama speak at their event, so it’s easy for them to pony up the fee.
Every ticket they sell will be to people who know who President Obama is and cannot wait to be in the same room as him.
His name, alone, will make money for the brokerage firm.
The Entire Speaking Industry Suffers Without Fees
But there is a larger issue at play here.
Let’s say he gives into the critics and decides not to take the fee.
Now Cantor Fitzgerald has a surplus of $400,000 in their budget, plus the profit they were planning to make.
(Not to mention the gads of publicity they’re getting as everyone debates this.)
They could quite possibly be up $800,000 to $1MM because President Obama still is their headliner—and they still will make buckets of money—but they no longer have to pay him.
Which means, his agent, whose livelihood is based on how much his clients are paid, makes zero.
And those of us who speak for a living (or partial living) now compete against former presidents who speak for free.
Which means we could also end up making zero.
The entire industry begins to suffer, and eventually dissolves, all because a former president has decided to donate his time when he speaks.
Of course, that’s running 600 steps ahead and it’s not likely to happen, but it is something to consider.
If President Obama will speak for free, the conversation becomes, “Well, we can get Obama for free. Why should we pay you $10,000?”
Or, “We don’t have a budget because we were expecting Obama, but had a last minute emergency. Can you do it for the exposure?”
Support the Speaking Industry
Minus the “We can get Obama for free” comments, these things already happen.
We live in a capitalist economy where things are valued, but people’s time is not.
And it is because there are big names who will speak for free.
There are organizations that don’t allow their employees to take a fee.
And there are some up-and-comers who will do it for free to build their portfolios.
While it’s a lucrative industry, it’s one that ranges from $0 to $400,000 (or more) per speech.
Which means there isn’t an industry-wide value placed on people’s brains.
So yes, President Obama should make $400,000 to speak at an event for an organization that was not his friend during his presidency.
At the very least, it should be to support an industry that helps many of us keeps roofs over our kid’s heads.
At the very most, it should be to donate to charity, which he and his wife are so keen to do.