At elite gala with ex-Bush official, Obama implores Wall Street to thank him for making them so much money

“Just say thank you, please,” former President Obama told a room full of bankers, and boasted of making the US the world’s largest oil producer at an opulent gala with James Baker.

By Ben Norton

Barack Obama urged bankers to thank him for helping make them so much money during his tenure as president. He also boasted of turning the US into the world’s largest oil producer, while surrounded by wealthy Republicans in tuxedos.

Obama made these appeals for elite adulation at a lavish gala hosted by former Secretary of State James Baker. His comments came just a few hours after he met with former Republican President George H. W. Bush at his home in Texas.

If there was any single event that captured Obama’s centrist, neoliberal capitalist politics, it was the former Democratic president’s oligarch lovefest in Houston on November 27.

At this sumptuous black-tie gala, Obama talked the 1,100 elite guests into raising a staggering $5.4 million, in just one night (at an average donation of nearly $5,000), for Rice University’s centrist, pro-corporate Baker Institute for Public Policy, the honorary chair of which is James Baker.

Baker quipped that Obama would be getting paid 10 percent of the $5.4 million in donations. It is unclear how much Obama raked in for this specific speech, but given the $400,000 fees the ex-president has charged Wall Street firms to speak since leaving the White House, Baker’s joke might not have been far off.

After begging for the gratitude of the ultra-rich, Obama and Baker rattled off a series of platitudes about the importance of “bipartisanship.” The Baker Institute described the event as a discussion of “political civility.”

The two did not once mention the name of President Donald Trump in their more than 30-minute discussion.

“Have you checked where your stocks were when I came in office?”

In one of the most eyebrow-raising moments of the night, Obama pushed back against Wall Street executives who have criticized him. He told the bankers who crashed the global economy in 2008, and who were then bailed out by the US government, that they should have been grateful, because they still made money.

“Sometimes you go to Wall Street, and folks will be grumbling about, ‘Anti-business…'” Obama said. “And I say, ‘Have you checked where your stocks were when I came in office, and where they are now?’ What what are you talking, what are you complaining about?”

“Just say thank you, please,” Obama told the bankers. “Because I want to raise your taxes a couple percent to make sure kids have a chance to go to school?”

Obama also spoke proudly in the discussion of having increased US fossil fuel production each year he was in office.

“I know we’re in oil country, and we need American energy,” Obama said. “And by the way, American energy production — you wouldn’t always know it — but it went up every year I was president. And that whole, ‘Suddenly America is the biggest oil producer’ — that was me, people.”

Meeting with George H. W. Bush

While he was in Houston to speak at the funder, Obama also met with former Republican President George H. W. Bush. Obama’s wife, Michelle, recently referred to Bush’s son, George W., as her “partner in crime.”

Bush’s post-White House spokesperson Jim McGrath said the “two had a very pleasant and private visit at the Bush residence, where they rekindled what was already a very warm friendship.”

The Baker Institute had initially invited Obama to speak alone at the Houston gala, but the former Democratic president indicated “that rather than give a speech, he wanted to have a conversation with Secretary Baker as a gesture of the importance of reaching across the aisle reaching across the aisle during a time of stark partisan divide in our country,” a representative from the think tank declared to sustained applause from the audience.

Baker waxed poetic on “bipartisanship, which I know is an issue that’s dear to President Obama’s heart.” Obama lamented that the bipartisan centrist neoliberal consensus has broken down. He blamed the media for fomenting a political divide on ideological lines.

Saudi Arabia’s man in Washington

Obama stressed the importance of Democrats working with Republicans. He also praised Baker for his work in the Bush Senior and Reagan administrations.

Baker served as secretary of state when the US waged war on Iraq for the first time. Just before the Gulf War, in 1991, Baker threatened that if Baghdad used “chemical or biological agents” in Kuwait, the US response would be “the elimination of the current Iraqi regime.”

The New York Times pointed out in 2002, on the eve of the US’ second war in Iraq, that the George W. Bush administration threatened Iraq with language that “bears considerable resemblance to a private warning that Secretary of State James A. Baker III sent to Saddam Hussein.”

After overseeing a war on Iraq under Bush Senior, Baker went on to serve as the chair of the Iraq Study Group under Bush Junior. This organization was established by the US Congress in 2006 to study how to more effectively wage war on Iraq.

Baker is also tightly linked to the Saudi ruling family. During his tenure in office, Baker collaborated closely with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US and a key go-between for semi-covert US proxy wars from Central America to Angola to Syria.

A 1992 profile in New York Times Magazine noted, “Bandar spends much of his time as an informal member of Baker’s circle of advisers on Middle East peace.” Baker was using Saudi Arabia to try to pressure Syria to negotiate with Israel at the time, and worked extensively with the Saudi monarchy on Iraq policy.

On the day of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Baker was at a conference at New York City’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel with Osama bin Laden’s brother, Shafiq. The day before, former president George H. W. Bush visited the hotel for the annual investor conference of the Carlyle Group.

The Carlyle Group, a world-leading private equity company based in Washington, DC, is closely linked to Saudi Arabia. Its co-founder, David Rubenstein, quipped in an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2003 that the Carlyle Group “has developed a reputation as the CIA of the business world — omnipresent, powerful, a little sinister.”

The bin Laden family invested millions of dollars in the corporation in the Carlyle Group, and James Baker served as its senior counselor, along with George H. W. Bush as an adviser.

Lamenting decline of US hegemony

In their discussion, both Obama and Baker lamented the decline in US imperial power across the globe. They agreed that the world cannot run smoothly without the United States as an international hegemon.

“People ask me often, John, what surprised me most about the presidency,” Obama said. “It is the degree to which the United States underwrites the international order. It is not always in the obvious ways, but if there’s a problem around the world, people do not call Moscow; they do not call Beijing; they call Washington. Even our adversaries expect us to solve problems and expect us to keep things running.”

“And when you start getting dysfunction in Washington,” Obama continued, “that doesn’t just weaken our influence; it provides opportunities for disorder to start ramping up all around the world.”

Baker added, “American leadership in the world is absolutely imperative. No other country can do it.”

Rice University President David Leebron summarized the event as a memorial for the “lost days of bipartisanship and shared values.”

Ben Norton is a journalist and writer. He is a producer and reporter for The Real News, and a contributor to the Grayzone Project and FAIR. Ben co-hosts the Moderate Rebels podcast with Max Blumenthal. His website is BenNorton.com, and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.