Obama's big speech paydays may do the Dems a favor

  • Former President Obama's decision to take a huge Wall St. speech payday is an embarrassment.
  • But it's a needed wake up call for Democrats who need to get back to their roots.
  • And it will help Democrats avoid the nostalgia trap moving forward.
President Barack Obama
Getty Images
President Barack Obama

Much of the political world, especially liberals, are still having a bit of tough time processing former President Barack Obama's decision to accept a $400,000 offer from a Wall Street firm to deliver a speech this coming fall.

Even Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren called the decision "troubling." And the fact that Mr. Obama warmed up for that Wall Street speech by making a separate $400,000 appearance for a cable TV network event late last month didn't make it any easier for liberals to swallow this new reality.

Here's the thing: Mr. Obama is doing the Democrats — and the left in general — a huge favor.

No, it's not the kind of selfless or wisely-chosen favor they may have been looking for. Yet by so blatantly bucking the progressive trend within his own party, President Obama is helping them see a way forward, as opposed to clinging to their losing past.

That losing past is best exemplified by the concerted effort to push Democratic contender Hillary Clinton to the 2016 presidential nomination, despite the progressive energy and ballot box potential Senator Bernie Sanders and his followers brought to the table during the primaries. Secretary Clinton's enormous wealth, which rose substantially via high-paid speeches she and her former president husband Bill delivered, was a major turn off for those Sanders supporters, not to mention many conservatives and moderates.

As we learned with the Clintons, big money speech deals for ex-politicians are like cockroaches; there's never just one... or two. Rest assured, Barack Obama will be making more of these speeches for big fees in the future.

Luckily for Mrs. Clinton and the power base inside the DNC responsible for the 2016 debacle, much of the public is still being distracted from realizing this problem thanks to the running conspiracy theories blaming the Clinton loss on a garden variety of conspiracy theories including the Russians, FBI Director James Comey, and white supremacists. And then there are the kind of unhelpful messaging coming from new DNC Chairman Tom Perez who has publicly declared that President Donald Trump didn't win the election.

Maybe their next brilliant move is to hold their breath and stamp their feet until they get what they want.

Who knows how long this delusion would have kept the Democrats from addressing their real problems, and start adjusting their messaging and grooming winning candidates? But the reaction to President Obama's big paydays are the first sign that reality is starting to creep in. The bottom line is that the Democrats always do best in national elections when they embrace their long-proven winning message of being the party trying to stand up for the economic "little guy."

Avoiding the abyss

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Cleveland, November 6, 2016.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Cleveland, November 6, 2016.

Regardless of whether that image is deserved, most voters seem to buy it when the Democrats and their candidates at least present a semi-cogent argument to that end. Hillary Clinton, with a net worth of tens of millions of dollars earned mostly from her and her husband's public titles, was not able to do that.

And another hard truth for Democratic Party leaders and their allies in the news media is that the Obama phenomenon never had much to do with policy. It was simply a cult of personality beholden to a manufactured image of Mr. Obama. Now, he has badly sullied that image by taking these speech honorariums.

However, even if the former president hadn't done this, the fact is that nostalgia doesn't work well in politics, even when it's based on images that are completely unsullied in the public mind. No political party can be led effectively by someone whose active political career is over.

The idea that Mr. Obama was going to run some kind of effective anti-Trump attack office out of his D.C. home, and then maybe groom a candidate, was always ludicrous. Maybe he'll still try, but successful candidates and movements within parties are always about a "new wave" and not looking back to the past. This is a big reason why Hillary Clinton couldn't win in 2008 or 2016, and why Ted Kennedy couldn't in 1980. Their names and positive feelings about their family members who had once been president weren't enough. The same fate is likely to befall any Democrat who runs for president in 2020 and beyond, based mostly on being Mr. Obama's favorite. History tells us this is a fact.

None of this means the Democrats can't or shouldn't embrace a candidate or a set of ideals that are more pro-business and capitalist. What they can't do, though, is back another horse like Hillary Clinton who seemed to be for sale to the highest bidder. The most likely result of this is likely to be a major shot in the arm for the Sanders progressive wing that Clinton opposed and President Obama never really embraced. Before this speech controversy, the Democrats were much more likely to keep that loser mentality and crony capitalist powers in place. At least now, there's a chance they will be displaced.

Trump won the presidential election because, despite being a billionaire, he convinced enough voters that he truly was an outsider at a time when distrust of Washington and Wall Street insiders is at an all-time high. The Democrats will never be able to win with someone who appears to be a compensated crony of the D.C./Wall Street/corporate triangle.

Barack Obama has just fallen into that trap for all to see. That means his fellow Democrats are that much less likely to follow him into the abyss.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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