Obama’s Speaking Fees: Where’s the Controversy?

By Robin Wallace

Former President Obama recently joined the speaking circuit, commanding $400,000 for an appearance at A&E Networks and the same fee for an upcoming speech for the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald, firing up critics outraged at the sum. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called the fees “unfortunate.”

Much of the public’s outrage may come from those unfamiliar with the public speaking industry, in which people who achieved prominence as public servants, political activists, journalists or through other endeavors can earn a living.

The reaction to Obama’s recent fees is not so much ethical as ideological. Supporters of the former president and his progressive policies may not be comfortable with him being an unabashed 1-percenter. But Obama’s fees reflect pure market forces at work.

President Trump has commanded up to $1.5 million per speech, the highest amount on record. Trump earned that amount 17 times for speeches he made for The Learning Annex’s seminars on real estate in 2006 and 2007.

Bill and Hillary Clinton can each net upward of $200,000 per speech. Former President Clinton has earned more than $100 million in public speaking fees since leaving office and was paid $1.4 million in 2012 for seven days of speeches in Europe.

Former Secretary of State Clinton is the highest paid woman speaker, once requesting $275,000. Chelsea Clinton was paid $65,000 for a 2014 appearance at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, though that fee, as with her mother’s paid speeches at universities, went to the Clinton Foundation.

Former President George W. Bush has earned tens of millions of dollars in speaking fees since leaving office, pulling in $100,000 to $175,000 per speech.

Fujisankei Communications Group paid former President Reagan $2 million for two talks he gave during a 1989 visit to Japan.

In 2007, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair earned $500,000 from a Chinese property development company for a speech at a luxury housing development.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani made $270,000 for an appearance with the Sage Capital Group in 2007 when he was a presidential candidate, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan commanded a $250,000 fee in 2006 at Lehman Brothers.