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Obama and the $400,000 Question

Former US President Barack Obama recently agreed to accept $400,000 from the investment firm Cantor Fitzpatrick for a speech he will give this September. He should use those proceeds to fight inequality – even at the risk of reducing the speaking fees his successors can command.

NEW YORK – Fox Business has gleefully reported that former US President Barack Obama will accept $400,000 from the Wall Street investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald to speak at a health-care conference this September. Those most disappointed by this news include people whom I hold in high regard. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren says that she is “troubled” by Obama’s decision, and Senator Bernie Sanders finds it “distasteful.” But Obama’s decision, I believe, does have some redeeming features.

I have met Obama twice, and was struck on both occasions by his natural warmth and grace. The first time was on November 7, 2010, when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted a dinner for Obama at his New Delhi residence. At that time, the Indian economy stood out for having recovered quickly after the 2008 financial crisis. When Singh introduced me as the Chief Economic Adviser of the Government of India, Obama showed his facility for repartee. He pointed to his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, and told me, “You should give this guy some tips.”

Our second meeting came in January 2015, a few weeks before Obama would make another official visit to India. Obama’s advisers invited me to the White House to brief the president on the state of the Indian economy, as part of a three- or four-person discussion on Indo-US relations. That meeting is now one of my most memorable ever, because I think Obama took the advice that I offered. That alone encourages me to offer him another bit of advice, now that he has accepted the controversial speaking fee.

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