Last October, Joe Biden traveled to the University of Buffalo and delivered a half-hour speech, took questions from the audience for 45 minutes, and signed books. He offered the assembled audience bits of wisdom, such as, “Our leaders need to lower the temperature of our public dialogue.”
The University of Buffalo Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, paid Biden $200,000 for the speech, the Q&A, the signing, as well as a photo opportunity, a “meet and greet with up to 16 attendees,” and an interview with reporters to the college newspaper, according to Biden’s contract.
It was one of several six-figure speaking engagements Biden had with colleges and universities in 2017 and 2018. Brown University got a relative bargain, with Biden reporting $92,642 in income from that appearance. Biden reported $100,000 from Long Island University, $124,515 from Southern Connecticut State University, $180,000 from Vanderbilt University, and $190,000 from Drew University.
When you’re a famous former government official, lucrative opportunities abound. In addition to the speeches, the University of Pennsylvania paid Biden $371,159 in 2017 plus $540,484 in 2018 and early 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “for a vaguely defined role that involved no regular classes and around a dozen public appearances on campus, mostly in big, ticketed events.” Biden is being paid two to two-and-a-half times the average salary of a Penn professor, and he’s not teaching any classes.
During the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, Hillary Clinton received some grief about her speaking fees, including a $225,000 fee from a public university where Clinton gave a speech lamenting the high cost of a university education.
The arguments in defense of Biden’s recent arrangements will be same ones that people used to defend Clinton in 2016: This is normal and standard for retired officeholders of both parties. The universities believe they’re getting a good deal because they gain prestige and news coverage by having a prominent political figure speaking there. After years of allegedly modest six-figure salaries as a senator or cabinet member, a retired lawmaker is entitled to cash in on the public- speaking circuit — separate from their multimillion-dollar book contracts and pensions. (The Bidens’ three-book deal with Flatiron Books is reportedly worth $8 million.)
Perhaps Clinton and Biden would get less grief if President Obama hadn’t declared in 2010, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” Obama himself is charging $400,000 per speech on the lecture circuit.
But perhaps the fact that this is “normal” and “standard” is part of the problem. Famous politicians already live in a bubble. In addition to the power and influence that come with their fame and status, they now are virtually guaranteed the ability to rapidly build wealth on par with Fortune 500 CEOs once they leave office. Any retired officeholder can make megabucks for a few years before running for president again — and this creates a legal way for just about anyone with sufficient funds to buy goodwill from a potential future president. None of these universities, nonprofits, or corporations could legally donate six figures to a presidential campaign, but they can pay any politician they like hundreds of thousands of dollars for a day’s work.
The former officials may convince themselves that they’ve earned those enormous sums because they’re just so darn charismatic and engaging as speakers. The behavior of those paying suggests otherwise. Bill and Hillary Clinton insisted that their family foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative never had any ulterior motives and and that they never traded favors with the wealthy and powerful. It was, as the Washington Post observed, “the networking event of choice for corporations, nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and wealthy philanthropists.” But right after the 2016 election, foreign governments suddenly lost interest in continuing their donations. The Australian government said it did not intend to continue its donations to the Clinton Foundation; it had given $88 million over ten years. After dramatically increasing its yearly donation in 2014 and 2015, the government of Norway chose to reduce its donation by 87 percent after the election.
At the very least, retired politicians who are making three to four times the median household income for a single speech ought to spare us those never-very-plausible claims of middle-class status, and here Biden is a particularly insufferable offender. Biden still insists that everyone call him “Middle Class Joe.” He’s clearly on verbal autopilot, and everyone around him is too polite to remind him that he and his wife have had a combined income north of $200,000 since the late 1990s, an income beyond just about all definitions of “middle class.”
As the Huffington Post pointed out in March, news archives reveal that the only person who’s ever called Joe Biden “Middle Class Joe” is Joe Biden. And he’s still doing it — at a house party in West Des Moines on July 15, Biden again told the crowd that he’s always been known as “Middle Class Joe.”
Biden’s continued insistence that he’s “Middle Class Joe” while raking in $15 million over two years is not quite as insufferable as Hillary Clinton’s claim that the Clintons were “dead broke” when they left the White House. But it’s getting there.