obama james baker gala
Barack Obama speaks with former top Bush/Reagan official James Baker in Houston

Barack Obama told bankers that they should thank him for helping them make so much money, and boasted turning the US into the world’s largest oil producer, while he spoke at a lavish gala surrounded by rich elites in tuxes eating hors d’oeuvres, raising money for a GOP-linked think tank.

This came mere hours after Obama met with former Republican President George H. W. Bush at his home in Texas.

In a single event that encapsulates everything about Obama’s centrist, neoliberal capitalist politics, more concisely than perhaps any other moment, the former Democratic president headlined a fundraiser in Houston on November 27, where he spoke with James Baker, the hawkish former secretary of state for Bush Senior and White House chief of staff and treasury secretary for Ronald Reagan.

At this sumptuous black-tie gala, which served hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, and an opulent dinner, 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, of which James Baker is the honorary chair.

Baker joked that Obama would be getting paid 10 percent of the $5.4 million in donations.

Obama spoke with Baker 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.

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 likewise 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.

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 Houson 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 said (to 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.

James Baker, a hawk and close Saudi ally

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

A lifelong hawk, 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 especially closely with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US. 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, and worked extensively with the Saudi monarchy on Iraq policy.

In fact, on the day of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Baker was at a conference at New York City’s luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel with Osama bin Laden’s brother Shafiq. The day before, former president George H. W. Bush had also been at 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, like Baker, 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 under writes 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 said the event was a rumination on the halcyon “lost days of bipartisanship and shared values.”

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.