Truly Ambitious People Want To Give Back, According To Barack Obama

"There’s only so big a house you can have."

Former president Barack Obama laid out his vision for what other Americans with high net worths could do with their money in a powerful speech at the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa, which marked what would have been the anti-apartheid leader's hundred birthday.

Obama gave a wide-ranging talk about the last 100 years in history, the life of Mandela and how to handle this political moment. At one point, the former president expressed his desire to see an inclusive, market-based system that taxed the rich enough to pay for universal health care, retirement security, infrastructure and scientific research. 

"I should add, by the way, right now I'm actually surprised by how much money I got," Obama said with a laugh. "And let me tell you something: I don't have half as much as most of these folks or a tenth or a hundredth. There's only so much you can eat. There's only so big a house you can have. There's only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it's enough."

U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle acknowledge the crowd after President Obama delivered a farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 10, 2017.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle acknowledge the crowd after President Obama delivered a farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 10, 2017. Shutterstock / John Gress Media Inc

Obama insisted that a wealthy person doesn't need to "take a vow of poverty" in order to pay a little more in taxes, to look around and see children who may need help and be willing to give up some wealth to provide for them. His speech struck a decidedly progressive tone.

"I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying, 'Wow, I've got so much. Who can I help? How can I give more and more and more?'" Obama said. "That's ambition. That's impact. That's influence. What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself."

While Obama's speech was full of his trademark optimism, he also emphasized quite a bit of cynicism about the current state of political and global affairs. He noted that "strongman politics are ascendent suddenly" and spoke candidly about the failure of the global elite to see the backlash from globalization coming. He warned that history has shown us that people can be easily convinced to turn on those that look different or pray differently. 

And now, he said, global leaders need to be considerate about another threat: automation that's coming thanks to evolving technology. He said that finding new ways to address income and employment — like universal income — may be necessary. 

"It's not just money that a job provides," Obama said. "It provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose."

Obama's vision for a more economically just world was closely tied to his vision for how economics and democracy were linked together. He insisted that democracy should be built from the ground up, through grassroots efforts, so the people who came to power in politics had a closer understanding of what life was like for those who are struggling.

"As a community organizer, I learned as much from a laid-off steelworker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighborhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office," Obama said. "Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it's lived in our communities, and that's what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings, this isn't working down here."

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