Obama Steps Back Into Public Life, Trying to Avoid One Word: Trump

CHICAGO — Former President Barack Obama studiously avoided any mention of President Trump or the assault on his own legacy as he returned to his adoptive home on Monday for his first public event since leaving the White House.

What might have been a moment for Mr. Obama to challenge Mr. Trump’s wiretapping accusations, or to assail the Republican agenda, instead became a college seminar on how to engage with a new generation of young people — and urge them to participate in political life.

“The single most important thing I can do,” the former president told an audience of students, is to “help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”

Avoiding Mr. Trump was no accident.

Mr. Obama has decided — for now, at least — to steer clear of any criticism of his successor, in part out of gratitude that former President George W. Bush took that same approach. But Mr. Obama and his advisers also have concluded that confronting Mr. Trump now would be a political mistake.

If Mr. Obama were to challenge the president directly, they believe, the former president would become a foil for Mr. Trump’s efforts to rally his supporters. That could end up helping Mr. Trump enact policies that Mr. Obama opposes.

As a result, the session at the University of Chicago, where Mr. Obama once taught constitutional law, was devoid of any Obama-Trump tension. Seated on a stage with six successful young people, Mr. Obama was relaxed and casual, musing about his political life story and offering a few jokes.

“So, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” Mr. Obama said, chuckling, at the start. Later, he hinted at the current political climate by recalling his 2004 observation about there not being a “red” America or a “blue” America during his speech at the Democratic National Convention that year.

“That was an aspirational comment,” he acknowledged, prompting laughter from the panel onstage and the audience. “Obviously, it’s not true when it comes to our politics and our civic life.”

Mr. Obama has spent the three months since Inauguration Day on an extended vacation even as his staff begins setting up an office in Washington and planning continues on his presidential library in Chicago. He is also starting to work on a memoir.

But on Monday, the former president began what will be a series of public appearances in the United States and Europe. His next scheduled public event is a May 7 speech at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where he will accept the library’s Profile in Courage award.

Mr. Obama spoke with the young people onstage here about civic engagement, community organizing and the importance of not withdrawing from the challenges facing society. For more than an hour, he served as talk show host, asking the questions.

He asked Ayanna Watkins, a senior at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago, about the importance of access to social studies and civic education. The young woman told the former president, “Awareness is something that holds a lot of our youth back from getting involved.”

Mr. Obama wanted to know why Harish Patel, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, had chosen to run for state representative last year as a young man. The answer, he replied, was in part that he did not see very many Patels in office and wanted to fix that.

“There are lot of Patels in India,” Mr. Obama interjected, prompting more laughter from the audience. “There are lot more Patels than there are Obamas.”

And Mr. Obama asked the lone Republican on the panel, Max Freedman, an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, about the issue of political correctness on college campuses. But when Mr. Freedman answered with a personal story from eighth grade — the same time that Mr. Obama was launching his first presidential campaign — the former president interrupted.

“Can I just say? I’m old,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s — but please, continue. Eighth grade!”

As the event unfolded, the participants were free to ask whatever they wanted, and Mr. Obama invited a couple of questions toward the end of the event. But they steered clear of asking any pointed questions about the current political situation in Washington and anything that might have been interpreted as a critique of Mr. Trump.

Ramuel Figueroa, an undergraduate at Roosevelt University in Chicago, did ask the former president about the challenges of getting day laborers to answer questions for a research project because of their increasing fears of being deported by the current administration.

Mr. Obama hinted at Mr. Trump’s aggressive crackdown on undocumented immigrants by saying that Mr. Figueroa needed to find someone the laborers would trust enough to talk to.

“That’s hard to do in this current environment, but it’s not impossible,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama’s choice of Chicago for his return to public life took him back to the place where he began as a community organizer decades ago.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Obama spoke fondly of starting his political career on the city’s South Side, where his presidential library will eventually be built.

“This community taught me that ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things,” Mr. Obama said. “This community taught me that everybody has a story to tell that is important.”

In his final speech as president in January, Mr. Obama also traveled to Chicago and talked about the effect the city had on him as a young man. “It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss,” Mr. Obama said on Jan. 10. “This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”

Mr. Obama’s conversation on Monday echoed many of the themes he talked about in that farewell address, including his plea that people not take democracy for granted.

Mr. Obama said he still cared about issues like economic inequality, climate change, justice and the spread of violence. But more than anything, he said, it was a lack of leadership that stopped the country from making inroads on solving those problems.

“All those problems are serious, they are daunting, but they are not insoluble,” Mr. Obama said. “What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.”

Mr. Obama briefly mentioned his concerns about the news media and the extent to which people are not exposed to ideas that challenge their worldview. He talked about the value of learning from failure and listening to people in order to learn, not just to formulate a response.

“Yeah, I learned that in marriage, by the way,” Mr. Obama said, grinning. “That will save you a lot of headache and grief. Sorry, just a little tip there.”

President Barack Obama speak to reporters during a joint news conference with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Associated Press)

Obama’s $400,000 Cantor Speech Makes Him Wall Street's Newest Fat Cat

When he was president he called them “fat cats,” but now he’s likely thanking them for a huge payday.

Former President Barack Obama, less than 100 days out of office, has agreed to speak at a Wall Street conference run by Cantor Fitzgerald LP, senior people at the firm confirm to FOX Business. His speaking fee will be $400,000, which is nearly twice as much as Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, and the 2016 Democratic Party candidate, charged private businesses for such events.

Obama has agreed to speak at Cantor’s health care conference in September and will be the keynote luncheon speaker for one day during the event, people at the firm tell FOX Business. These people say Obama has signed the contract, but the company, a mid-sized New York-based investment bank, is waiting to coordinate with the former president before making a formal announcement.

These people add that Obama could ultimately back out of the arrangement depending on his schedule and other concerns such as adverse publicity.

A spokesman for the former president didn’t return a call for comment; a spokeswoman for Cantor said the firm is not in a position to comment just yet, but would not deny that Obama has agreed to speak to the firm and at the $400,000 fee.

News of Obama’s speaking deal with Cantor, which had yet to be reported, comes as the former president made on Monday his first public comments since leaving office after an extended vacation. In those comments to college students at the University of Chicago, the president spoke broadly about the need for public service and studiously avoided any mention of the current president, Republican Donald Trump, or how he intends to make a living now that he’s a private citizen.

It’s also likely to be a source of criticism against the former president given Obama’s record of attacks against Wall Street bankers for making huge salaries while average Americans were suffering from the ravages of the 2008 financial crisis. Obama, a progressive Democrat, spoke frequently about Wall Street greed during his eight years as president, and now he’s accepting a speaking fee from the industry he singled out as the main culprit of the banking collapse.

“Is there an irony here because he spoke incessantly about the income gap and is now earning from those same people he criticized? Yes it is,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “Should we expect it? Yes, we should because all former presidents do this. He went on the attack against Wall Street and now he’s being fed by those same people he called ‘fat cats’. It’s more hypocritical than ironic.”

Another irony: Obama will be speaking at a health care conference at a time when his signature piece of legislation – ObamaCare—could be radically altered by President Trump and a Republican Congress. Given the September date of the conference, Obama may be forced to address problems with the controversial health care law, such as massive premium increases, if the GOP repeal doesn’t take shape by then.

Of course, Obama wouldn’t be the first politician or even former president to accept large fees for speaking to business groups. Most presidents like Obama, who isn’t independently wealthy, also seek to cash in on their celebrity though speaking fees and lucrative book deals (Obama has already signed a book deal worth a reported $60 million).

Former president Bill Clinton, for example, is a prolific speaker, and by some estimates earned well over $100 million in fees for public appearances since leaving office. But like his wife, Hillary, Bill Clinton’s average fee of little more than $200,000 is nearly half of what President Obama will be commanding for his speech at Cantor, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

And while Bill and Hillary Clinton frequently spoke to Wall Street firms, such as Goldman Sachs, unlike Obama, they were hardly at odds with the financial business during either of their times in office. The presidency of Bill Clinton included a massive deregulation of Wall Street, a booming stock market and lower taxes on investments—all moves that endeared him to the Wall Street community.

The former first lady and former U.S. Senator from New York was regarded as a centrist when it came to Wall Street regulation and received copious monetary support from the financial community all through her political career. During her unsuccessful 2016 president campaign, she largely avoided attacking banks directly even as she preached the need for income redistribution and stiff regulations against businesses.

President Obama, meanwhile, was elected president while the country was in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, and then the Great Recession. Public sentiment against the big banks for their role in the crisis was high, and he wasted little time using the public’s anger at the big banks to his political advantage.

During a 2009 interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” Obama famously said, "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” and gave a series of speeches during his two terms in office demanding accountability from banks, which he characterized as the main culprits of the 2008 financial crisis.

But even worse for the banks were his actions as president. His championing of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law squeezed bank profits, and forced firms like Goldman Sachs to drop once-lucrative business lines. The Obama Justice Department didn’t indict a single bank for financial crisis related frauds, but it did rack up billions of dollars in penalties against players like JPMorgan, the nation’s largest bank, for alleged abuses.

Sheinkopf says Obama may receive criticism from Republicans for his alleged hypocrisy over accepting the speaking fee from Wall Street, but he believes the criticism inside his own party will be muted even from such notable class warriors as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“Democrats are lacking so much leadership that they aren’t going to be upset with this,” he said. “They have no heroes anymore, and [Obama] was their last great hero, so how can they turn on him even though he is being a bit of a hypocrite?”

Guess what else Obama gave away in the Iran deal?

If you thought you’d already heard the worst about what the Obama administration gave away in order to conclude its nuclear deal with Iran, guess again.

In a blockbuster exposé, Politico’s Josh Meyer reports that Team Obama overruled veteran prosecutors to free seven Iranians, claiming publicly they’d merely violated economic sanctions. In fact, they were charged with posing threats to US national security as part of a weapons procurement ring.

More, the administration also dropped charges against 14 fugitives involved in smuggling sophisticated weapons to Iran and its terrorist subsidiaries. That move ended the international arrest warrants against the 14 — and Obama & Co. had been obstructing efforts to apprehend them.

Time and again, top officials at the White House, Justice and State departments denied prosecutors’ requests to lure one of the fugitives to friendly countries where he could be arrested. Soon, the arms merchants vanished off US law enforcement radar.

The president’s men also slowed down extradition efforts against suspects in custody and began slow-walking investigations and prosecutions of US-based procurement.

In effect, the administration deliberately derailed its own National Counterproliferation Initiative at a time, Meyer reports, “when it was making significant headway in thwarting Iran’s proliferation networks.”

And Iran got a green light to continue defying international law.

At the time of the release, the White House said freeing the seven “civilians” was a “one-time gesture” that also brought freedom for Americans held captive in Iran.

In fact, it was all part of a “do whatever’s needed” to get Iran’s agreement — and a “say whatever’s needed” to sell it to the American public.

Tehran saw how desperately Obama wanted the deal and took full advantage.

At the time of the prisoner exchange, we said the way Team Obama “got it done is ugly indeed.” Little did we know — until now.

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