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A piece of Obama's post-presidential life: Sandwiches and speeches

Last week, Obama called attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act "aggravating" at a Gates Foundation event

Kate Kelly | NYT 

Barack Obama's (left) paid speeches have helped him in contributing $2 million to employment and job-training programmes for low-income young people in Chicago.
Barack Obama’s (left) paid speeches have helped him in contributing $2 million to employment and job-training programmes for low-income young people in Chicago.

An hour inside Barack Obama’s post-presidential life included boxed sandwiches, scores of money managers and a treatise on health care reform.

Those were the main ingredients on Monday when Obama spoke in at a conference on health care sponsored by the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald —at least his ninth paid speech since leaving office.

Steel-jawed and wearing a dark suit and an American-flag lapel pin, Obama was reserved in describing the dogfight over health care in Washington, which threatens to derail his signature legislative accomplishment, the

During his 25-minute prepared remarks, Obama’s laugh lines were few, and his swipes at the administration even fewer. Instead, he undertook a professorial review of what the health care law had accomplished, considered its remaining problems, and swept through some potential solutions.
 
“This is a big system, and it’s complicated, but what to do that would make it better is actually not that mysterious,” Obama told a ballroom of some 500 people. “But it does require putting ideology aside.”

The speech was Obama’s third to a financial crowd in the past month —he also spoke to clients of the money-management firm Northern Trust Corporation and the private-equity firm Carlyle Group —and gave some indication of how he has been navigating the moneymaking opportunities of his newly private life. Since leaving the White House in January, the former president and his wife have reportedly won a $60 million joint book deal, and his speaking fees —including to Cantor —have gone as high as $400,000 per speech. He has also vacationed on an exclusive island and taken up residence in an $8.1 million home.

That is all in addition to a spate of unpaid speeches, including one to at-risk youths in Chicago, and a separate event Monday for the Beau Biden Foundation, which focuses on protecting children from abuse and was named for the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, who died of cancer in 2015.

“Since leaving office, President Obama has spent his time doing public and private events, both paid and unpaid, that are true to his values and his record,” Kevin Lewis, the former president’s spokesman, wrote in an email. Lewis added that the paid speeches had helped make it possible for Obama to contribute $2 million to employment and job-training programmes for low-income young people in Chicago.

Lewis declined to comment on how the president, who has avoided much of the criticism faced by Hillary Clinton and other public officials who made paid speeches to private industry after leaving office, selects his paid engagements.

At the Cantor event, Obama arrived on stage nearly a minute after the brokerage firm’s Chief Executive, Howard Lutnick, introduced him. “I’ve got to work on my entrance timing,” Lutnick joked as he waited, and waited, by the microphone.

After his prepared remarks and a few longer questions, Obama participated in what Lutnick called a “lightning round.” But Obama ended up fielding only one inquiry —about technology and government health care costs —and answered it soberly and at length, running out the clock. Obama then beseeched the audience of health care business professionals to keep the sick and scared at the core of what they did.

“If you’re going to make money this way, you better think about it,” he said.

Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost more than 600 employees on September 11, 2001, in the attack on the World Trade Center, is not a top-tier player in investment banking. Leaner and less well-known than Wall Street blue-bloods like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, it brokers trades and gives strategic advice to small and midsize corporations. Health care is one of its specialties.

Still, its crowd on Monday was full of marquee industry names, with representatives from hedge funds like Citadel and Balyasny, investment firms like Bain and Ares, and biotech companies like Amgen. Most of the attendees were Cantor clients.

Not everyone, however, was laser-focused on the guest of honour. Before the main event, some attendees made a bet on how late the speech would start - one guessed 20 minutes, another guessed 30. In one of the venue’s spillover rooms, where roughly 200 people watched the former president on a video monitor, a man in the back row dozed off while texted or nibbled on pastrami baguettes.

Last week, Obama called attempts to undo the “aggravating” at a event and on Monday he called them a cynical political exercise. Hours later, the opposition of a key senator appeared to leave the latest repeal bill without the necessary support to pass.

He acknowledged that the current system has problems, including that some states had not expanded Medicaid to the extent allowed by the ACA, and that some insurers were not providing coverage to parts of rural states. The solution to the lack of coverage, he said, was a public fallback plan.

Another problem, Obama added, was that the “current administration” has taken steps “to make it harder for people to sign up for coverage during this year’s open enrollment period.” He hinted that helping publicise that period would be a personal priority of his this year. “As a private citizen, I’m going to have to help do what I can to help people get that information,” he said.

The White House did not comment on Obama’s criticism on Monday evening.

Some audience members said that they were gratified by Obama’s remarks. “The thing that impressed me the most about the discussion today is that he really tried to stay away from the politics,” Sara Finan, an investor-relations consultant from Akron, Ohio, said after the event. “He acknowledged the faults of the ACA. But at the same time, he looked at, ‘Let’s not try and reinvent the wheel.’”

©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Wed, September 27 2017. 02:48 IST
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