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.