When Netflix announced last year it had entered a production deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, trading as Higher Ground Productions, the response from the right was predictable. Tons of extremely online conservatives who’ve spent the better part of a decade criticising every single thing that Obama does just because he’s Obama tried to start a boycott. Extremely online liberals and leftists made fun of the extremely online conservatives, but rarely commented on the deal itself, save the occasional prediction the shows would probably suck. And most people didn’t hear about it or didn’t care.
It was all very predictable, yet also confusing. I’m an extremely online leftist and when I heard Netflix had signed a deal with the Obamas, I was disgusted, so I thought the extremely online left response would be to make fun of extremely online conservatives for coming up with an incorrect explanation for their correct conclusion this news was messed up. But no one else seemed disgusted, so I waited to see if maybe some disgust would develop, but everyone just forgot about it, and now it’s a year later and I’m finished waiting, so here’s why you should be disgusted by the Obama-Netflix deal.
The deal is, simply, rank corruption. The Obamas are profiting from the Presidency after the fact, using the prestige of the White House to bargain up their price on the private market. It’s profoundly wrong on two fronts. First, because even if, against all evidence to the contrary, you don’t believe Barack Obama in particular is corrupt because you don’t believe he’s collecting money from industries his administration helped out with their policies at the expense of working people, it would still be wrong for Obama to cash in because it gives plausible deniability to others who do. When Trump does it, he can turn around and tweet “Oh, so it was fine when Obama did it, but not me? Political correctness run amok! Many such cases!” and there’ll be no more proof that he’s taking kickbacks than with Obama, so it will actually be hypocritical to accuse him of corruption. And Trump will want you to resolve the hypocrisy by not criticising him, but you can also resolve it by criticising Obama.
It doesn’t matter what industry they’re recouping it from, no president should profit from the office, even by apparently legitimate means. If the Obamas really and truly wanted to go into film and TV production because of a passion for the work and not just to make money, they should have refused any deal larger than anyone with a similar level of experience who wasn’t President or First Lady of the United States would get. See, I’m not even saying presidents can’t work after they leave office, they can just refuse exorbitant fees. I know it’s a crazy notion that’s rarely explored, but rich people can just choose to stop making money – they can even choose to not be rich anymore. Given the size of the presidential pension, there’s no reason the Obamas couldn’t have done their production work without any salary, though maybe it would have been even better for two highly-credentialed lawyers like the Obamas to do pro bono work for the poor. I bet a former President and First Lady could do a lot of good as public defenders.
Second, because it turns the presidency into a trinket to be pawned at the earliest opportunity, rather than a duty owed to the people of the nation. No one should seek an office with such incredible responsibility for any reason other than a sincere desire to improve the welfare of all people. The idea of becoming president out of self-interest should be laughable, but, right now, the office comes with a revolving door right into lucrative private sector work. And the Obamas haven’t been shy about using that door. Back in 2017, it came out that Barack Obama was making almost half a million dollars per speech giving keynotes on Wall Street. There was some criticism of him for doing so, especially given his administration’s lax approach to regulating Wall Street. I’m not saying Obama giving speeches on Wall Street was a discreet and legal way for him to pick up his bribes, but if it had been, it sure wouldn’t have looked any different. Plenty of people sprung to his defense, of course, because he remains, undeservedly, a popular figure. Especially in comparison to his slovenly, stupid, bloviating, racist successor, Obama is remembered by his supporters as an emblem of a better time, when presidents were competent, well-spoken, reasonable people who were fundamentally decent, even if you disagreed with them, and respected democratic norms. And I understand the impulse. I practically brainwashed myself into not just reluctantly supporting, but genuinely admiring Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election, because in the face of someone as blatantly repugnant as Trump, almost anyone can look worthy of hero worship.
But Barack Obama was a bad president. The closest thing he has to enduring achievements are the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and the Iran deal on nuclear weapons. Obamacare is an utterly inadequate, toothless and fatally compromised law that left millions of people uninsured even at its best and entered a death spiral of premium increases once the Republicans started stripping away some of its key provisions. The nuclear deal is hanging on by a thread after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal as part of a long-term effort to start an illegal war with Iran. The rest of Obama’s administration was disaster after disaster, from the bombing of Libya, which precipitated the state’s collapse into a war-torn slave state, to the foreclosure crisis, which wiped out black wealth in the US. He wasn’t even good for his party, which saw a calamitous decline at all levels of government during his presidency. He is a legitimate war criminal who has personally ordered the murders of children by drone. Despite riding into office on a wave of post-recession populist energy, his administration actively protected the bankers who crashed the world economy from prosecution. He consigned activist Chelsea Manning to torture for most a decade, only commuting her sentence as an end-of-term PR move, deported more people than any other president in history and tried to stop his own party investigating torture by the CIA. He is an utter failure as a president and should be living out his life in shame at the moral catastrophe of his life’s work. Instead, he went straight to the private island of scumbag billionaire Richard Branson for a surfing holiday before settling in for a new job cashing checks for doing nothing.
Lots of people don’t necessarily know all this stuff, of course, but even people you’d expect to be at least moderately well-informed just don’t seem to care. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah responded to the frankly mild criticism of Obama’s Wall Street payday by calling Obama’s critics racist for saying “the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards”. Stupid enough entirely on the face of it, but then you find out it’s also factually wrong, because Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter turned down several lucrative offers to cash in on their presidencies. Truman was so steadfast in his refusal to impugn the office with the suggestion it could be bought by financial interests or otherwise used to profit its holders that he rejected both corporate positions and commercial opportunities, even though, at the time, he had no savings and only a meagre army pension to live off. Congress introduced a presidential pension mostly over embarrassment at Truman’s relative poverty, and now Barack Obama pulls in $200,000 per year, which would be more than enough for anyone to retire on. Of course, Obama is certainly not unique in cashing in on the Presidency – Clinton practically brags about it – but just because something is the norm doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.
Now, you might say there are certain differences between Wall Street speeches and a deal to make movies and TV shows for Netflix. There’s certainly more work involved in the latter, and it results in some kind of product, whereas the former looks like, well, a thin veneer over legalised bribery. But even if we pretend the Obamas are gonna be hands-on producers (they’re not) who do lots of work for their companies (they won’t), they’re cashing in just by taking the crazy sums of money from both this and their publishing deals, which netted them $65 million each for churning out a pair of crappy autobiographies. The Obamas are complete production novices with no relevant background experience and no matter how much Netflix is paying them – which we don’t know because it hasn’t been disclosed – they’re getting way more money than their labour is worth simply because they are a former President and First Lady of the United States. I don’t know what else to call soliciting and accepting absurd sums of money for work that wouldn’t pay a fraction if you weren’t an ex-President but cashing in on the office.
This doesn’t just apply to the Obamas, obviously, or even to the White House. We should generally expect politicians not to cash in on their office, at every level. It should be taken as a given that even low-level officials not take any kind of work in an industry related to their state positions for at least several years after. We need to shut the revolving door between government and the private sector altogether, whether it’s Nick Clegg taking an executive position at Facebook or Dick Cheney shoving money into a private military contractor as Secretary for Defense and then picking up a cushy job at the same company when his tenure was over. That being said, there is something I find particularly sinister about how the Obamas are cashing in, and that’s how it will affect Obama’s legacy.
The greatest gift that Barack Obama ever received was President Donald Trump, because it caused millions of people to develop the rosiest, most tintedest glasses ever about pretty much all previous presidents, except Nixon, but only because they needed Nixon to be bad so they could say Trump is the new Nixon and have that be a bad thing. Obama has been the biggest beneficiary of this because the glasses were on even before he’d left office. George W. Bush had to wait the bones of a decade for people to apparently forget he was one of the worst US presidents in history and rehabilitate him as “George W. Bush, Who Gave That Speech About Not Blaming Muslims for 9/11, So We’re Gonna Pretend He Never Persecuted Muslims, Perhaps By Killing Half a Million Iraqis Through an Illegal War to Secure Oil Profits for Private Corporations”. Obama didn’t have to wait. People just wiped every failure and crime for their mind, every child murdered in a drone strike, every person killed due to lack of healthcare, every family caged for the crime of seeking a better life in a new country. Thus was born the meme of “Remember how Obama’s only scandal was wearing a tan suit?” (The Daily Show did a bit about this as well), even though the Obama administration had plenty of scandals, from the Snowden leaks of its vast spying apparatus to the exposure of Operation Fast and Furious to the firing of Shirley Sherrod.
I have a sneaking suspicion the Obamas’ movies and shows will suck, but regardless, I’m sure they will seek to cement Barack’s fictitious legacy as a decent man who tried his hardest to do the right thing with the tools he had. Most presidents try to do this through memoirs or charity work, but Obama is expanding into Hollywood, hoping to define his post-presidency by attaching himself to artistic work with more moral value than he himself has ever held. Whatever movies and shows come from the deal will comport with the brand, not the man. No documentaries about all the families he murdered in illegal drone strikes. No dramas about the immigrants persecuted by his regime. No interviews with Chelsea Manning, who is back in prison for refusing to testify in a secret court intended to obliterate the rights of whistleblowers.
The Obamas have announced their first slate of projects, and most of it seems fairly inoffensive. I’m even kind of interested in the biopic of Frederick Douglass (one suspects it will skip his speech in favour of decriminalising migration). I’m not gonna tell you to boycott Netflix, or even the Obamas’ shows and movies. But I do want us all to watch them sceptically and never let whatever meagre good might come from this production deal eclipse all the evil things that Barack Obama did when he was President of the United States. It’s bad enough the Obamas will spend the rest of their life raking in hundreds of millions of dollars just because they used to live in the White House. Don’t let them convince you they earned it too.