Barack Obama

Life after high office: Obama gives speeches, while retired Chinese leaders stay out of the limelight

Jiang Xun reflects on the Chinese proposal to review the pension and benefits for retired state leaders, as he watches the former US president take on lucrative speaking engagements and maintain an active public life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 11:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 5:37pm

Last month, when former US president Barack Obama gave a speech at a business conference in Shanghai, I was in the audience. There, Obama spoke to more than 2,500 representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises, both at home and abroad. In his first post-presidency speech in China, which was also his first in Shanghai in eight years, “cooperation” was a key word.

I was also there when Obama spoke in Shanghai eight years ago, on his first visit to China. It was in the middle of November 2009, and he addressed some 300 young people in a 15-minute speech.

That speech was delivered as part of a political mission, but the recent one was purely commercial in nature. The conference organisers reportedly paid Obama a few million yuan for the 20-minute speech, which was followed by a question-and-answer session that lasted 30 minutes.

Obama was 47 in 2008 when he got elected president of the United States by preaching the inspiring messages of hope and change. The inaugural address of the first black president in US history drew applause from the rest of the world.

Today, bearing the aura of a former US president, his rhetorical skills have only got better. All he needs to do, it seems, is pick up a microphone and the words flow. He is the picture of a charismatic leader. In a speech of 10 to 20 minutes, he never looks at the script, but gets the body language, the pace of his speech, and the intonation of his voice just right.

It is said that an excellent speech has five qualities: expressive, well structured, inspiring, persuasive and highly performative. Obama scores top marks in all five areas.

Eleven months after leaving the Oval Office, Obama has shed the constraints of the office and made a start on a lucrative career. Upon his retirement, Obama and his wife Michelle set a record for US presidential memoirs by signing book deals reportedly worth over US$60 million with Penguin Random House. By comparison, fellow Democrat and former president Bill Clinton secured a US$15 million advance for his 2004 memoir, My Life (a record-breaking amount at the time).

Obama is reportedly paid up to US$400,000 for a speech, almost as much as he earned in a year as president. Since May, he has made paid appearances at events in Italy, Germany, Scotland, Canada, Indonesia and South Korea. He also gave three speeches on Wall Street: he addressed clients of money management firm Northern Trust Corp in August; spoke at a conference for the private equity firm Carlyle Group in September; and at investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald’s health care conference in October. At US$400,000 a speech, he made US$1.2 million from the three speeches.

Barack Obama to be paid $400,000 for speech organised by Wall Street firm

A retired US president receives a pension, so he does not have to worry about money. At US$236,000 a year, Obama’s pension is the fattest among the five living presidents. But his expenses are also the highest.

The Obamas are paying off a huge mortgage. According to White House documents, the couple applied for a 30-year home loan of between US$500,000 and US$1 million in 2005. The loan will not be paid off until 2035.

The couple are also devoted to their children, and to their children’s education. Both attach great importance to education. Their youngest daughter Sasha is attending Sidwell Friends School, a prestigious school in Washington which, according to its website, charges about US$40,000 in annual tuition. Their eldest daughter, Malia, is studying at Harvard, for about US$60,000 a year.

US presidents would usually set up a foundation after leaving office. Obama is no exception. His foundation needs substantial financial support for a planned presidential library and other facilities. The library, for example, costs an estimated US$1.5 billion to build and operate.

Scrutiny of the life of a US president after his departure from office often invites questions about the lives of retired Chinese leaders. In particular, the proposed amendments to the rules on the pension and benefits for retired state leaders and government officials, which were raised in 2013, attracted much public attention.

China’s Politburo tightens benefits for retired and present party, state leaders

A change of Zhongnanhai leadership will take place in three months, with a large number of senior officials expected to retire. Going by past experience, retired officials may write books and act as heads of civic and social organisations, but they would largely keep out of the public eye. They are expected to refrain from commenting on government policies, and fully support the central government. After handing over power, they are expected to return to being a private citizen.

Notwithstanding these unwritten rules, pension reform for government officials after the 19th Communist Party congress remains a focus of public attention.

Jiang Xun is deputy editor-in-chief of Yazhou Zhoukan, and editor-in-chief of Zero New Media. This article is translated from Chinese