Few things in politics have been as hotly anticipated as Barack Obama’s presidency, with the possible exception of Barack Obama’s post-presidency.
With Trump set to enter the Oval Office, and Obama set to leave it as one of the youngest former presidents in history, speculation abounded about what his post-presidential life would look like. Would he stay in the public eye? Remain politically active? If so, would he join the #Resistance to Trump? And without the shackles of the presidency, would we see a bolder Obama freer to courageously speak his mind?
One year on, we have a tentative answer. With the dust barely settled from his presidency, Obama has broken from tradition by becoming unusually politically engaged, both in his public pronouncements and his actions — no doubt a product of the unique historical moment in which we find ourselves. As for what that involvement entails, the verdict is a mixed bag.
Those who believed Obama’s cautious, centrist approach to governing was a result of the tightrope he was forced to walk as the country’s first black president may be disappointed to find he continues to adhere to that approach in his post-presidential activism. Obama’s affinity for reflexive compromise and aversion to anything too far outside the momentary center were not, it seems, carefully calibrated images beamed out for the voting public; they are who he is. As a result, the first year of Obama’s post-presidency has rocked back and forth between the somewhat encouraging, the dubious, and the outright damaging.
A year in, it’s far too early to make any kind of definitive judgement about Obama’s post-presidential career, which will last many decades more. But over the course of these 365 days, Obama has shown repeatedly why he’s always been an unreliable ally for those who see the need for deep structural changes to solve to the ills of America and the world.
Where Obama has unquestionably been most successful in his post-presidential life is in his public pronouncements. This should come as little surprise: even when his accomplishments were questionable or nonexistent, Obama always had a way with words. As Rising Star, David Garrow’s exhaustively researched and criminally under-discussed biography of Obama, informed us, Obama first viewed becoming a novelist as a path to greatness, before settling on charting the unlikely path to the presidency that consumed his entire adult life.
Obama has thus not shied away from speaking out, however obliquely, against Trump’s policies, dispensing quickly with established tradition that discourages former presidents from criticizing their successors — or, at least, encourages a lengthy grace period before they do. It took Obama only eleven days — the same length of time it took Trump to sign his travel ban — to wade back into politics, with his spokesman informing the world that he “fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion,” and backing the protests that spontaneously erupted against the measure.
Since then — and after a break of a few months as he holidayed in various exotic locales — Obama has continued to speak out. He criticized the GOP’s health care bill as a “massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America,” urging Republicans to vote against it. He sharply rebuked Trump for “reject[ing] the future” by leaving the Paris climate deal, and called his decision to end DACA “wrong” and “cruel.”
He’s weighed in on broader issues too, such as his record-breaking tweet in response to the murder in Charlottesville, which somehow managed to delicately both condemn racism and remind us of the inherent humanity of the vile racists themselves. He’s also warned his fellow Americans that a slide toward dictatorship is possible without public vigilance, and used his celebrity to raise money for charity.
But just as when he was in office, Obama’s post-presidency becomes less shiny when it moves away from the realm of the symbolic. For one, Obama’s actions over the past year remind us that his moderation and centrism as president weren’t merely posturing, but a reflection of his very real disdain for the Left.
Take his political endorsements. Merkel and Macron are right-wing politicians. One could argue that his endorsement of Macron was a product of limited choices — it was either him or a fascist. But no such excuse exists in Germany, which has a proportional electoral system and a number of left to center-left alternatives to Merkel’s CDU.
This is more galling when one considers the major European election that Obama conspicuously sat out: the British one, which ultimately saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour come from behind to achieve the party’s best result in seventy years. At the same time that Obama sat down to go viral with Trudeau, and only a month after explicitly endorsing Macron, he didn’t say a word about Labour or Corbyn — not even offering a symbolic non-endorsement endorsement, as he did at first for Macron with a “bromantic” phone call.
In fact, it was much worse. According to journalists Tim Ross and Tom McTague, who wrote a behind-the-scenes account of the election, Obama personally phoned Tory headquarters to reassure them (incorrectly, it turned out) that Labour was set to lose twenty to thirty seats. “Obama told a Tory friend to pass on an encouraging message,” they wrote: “Labour are expecting to lose seats, meaning the Tory majority will go up.” In other words, Obama believed that Labour was set for a catastrophic defeat, and he was gloating to their right-wing opposition about it.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising since he suggested at the end of his tenure that Labour had lost touch with “fact and reality” under Corbyn. Yet Obama had also promised to wade into politics when “our core values may be at stake,” and Theresa May’s campaign and policies were defined by the stoking of anti-immigrant fervor described as “cruel” and “backward looking.”
Back home, Obama was the singular force behind the derailment of Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chair at the start of last year. As president, Obama had specifically recruited Tom Perez to block Ellison, and “stop the Sanders wing of the party from taking over,” as one Obama official said. According to Vox, in the weeks leading up to the election at the end of February, Obama and his team systematically worked to turn each DNC voting member against Ellison, with Obama personally phoning members when necessary. Ellison lost, despite securing the endorsement trifecta of grassroots progressives, high-ranking congressional Democrats, and numerous state party chairs.
According to Politico, Obama’s now pushing former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick to run for president in 2020. Besides pushing an austerity agenda while governor, Patrick also worked for Texaco and Coke as they carried out unconscionable abuses in poor countries, sat on the board of a predatory lender that ended up being a key player in the subprime-mortgage crisis, and now works for Bain Capital, the “vulture capital” private equity firm that Obama spent 2012 disparaging when it served his interests in the election.
There’s also Obama’s Presidential Center, which has been the subject of significant controversy in Chicago, his hometown. Concern has been voiced by groups as diverse as Black Youth Project 100, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Critics point out that instead of choosing the public transportation-accessible Washington Park, badly in need of economic revitalization, as the location, Obama chose the much fancier, less accessible lakeside location of Jackson Park, transferring twenty-one acres of public (and historically significant) land to a private entity.
A landscape-advocacy group warned the design would damage landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s design, and conservationist groups say it could violate federal laws against damaging sites on the National Register of Historic Places More than one hundred University of Chicago faculty signed a letter calling it “socially regressive,” pointing out, among other things, that its construction will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but that the center and its profits will stay in private hands.
Since May of last year, protesters have been campaigning to pressure Obama to sign a Community Benefits Agreement, a legal contract that guarantees various principles, including that the majority of jobs go to local communities, that they pay a living wage, that it doesn’t displace residents, and that some land is set aside for low-income housing. Obama has refused, telling the audience at a public Q&A about the project that the proposed deal was an “okey-doke” — meaning, a scam — and essentially assuring the crowd he knew better.
Then there’s the gaudy chase for cash that’s characterized his year out of office. The Obamas signed a record-breaking $65 million book deal early last year, but that didn’t stop Obama from following in the footsteps of Tony Blair and the Clintons by picking up $1.2 million for three Wall Street speeches. Sure, an Obama spokesman pointed to his $2 million donation to charities, but that was never the point. The problem is that Obama — who staffed his administration with Wall Street lackeys, failed to prosecute bankers despite mountains of evidence of illegality, and came up with the doctrine of “too big to jail” — would never have earned that money had he meaningfully taken on the banking sector.
Not everything Obama’s done since leaving office can be characterized as either good or bad. The verdict’s still out on some of it.
Take the Obama Foundation, his flagship project whose mission statement is “developing the next generation of citizens” and creating programs and nonprofits around the country. With $13 million in revenue as of 2016, how exactly has this mission been carried out in practice?
According to its own year in review: it held a summit with civic leaders from around the world where they exchanged ideas and listened to “talks on topics ranging from motivating young people to choose a civic path to technology’s role in creating equitable and inclusive communities”; it launched a social media campaign to counter stereotypes; started a fellowship program to “support outstanding civic innovators from around the world”; and held three pilot training days, where participants learned about “volunteer and leadership opportunities,” “the importance and fundamentals of telling their own personal stories” and “breaking issues down to their root causes.” The Foundation also took over the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper program, aimed at helping young men and boys of color get ahead.
Aside from that, the Foundation seems to have mostly spent 2017 working to get Obama’s presidential center up and running, as well as sending Obama to places like Berlin, Jakarta, and Sao Paulo, crafting a video series and holiday card, and hosting the occasional public meeting. The most interesting program — giving packed lunches and supply kits to less fortunate Chicagoans — seems to have been a one-off for Martin Luther King Day.
If this seems a little thin, perhaps that’s because it’s only its first year. But if the Obama Foundation wants to be more than just a nice, philanthropic side-job and resume-boost for the loyalists and questionable corporate types who populate its board, it’ll have to do more than make videos and hold workshops about citizenship.
More interesting is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), an Obama initiative in all but name. The group aims to elect Democrats in governorships around the country and give Democrats as much sway as possible when redistricting takes place in 2021, to combat further gerrymandering by the GOP, a goal Obama personally fundraised for last year. His reasoning is classic Obama, believing that gerrymandered districts pulled Republicans “to the far right for fear of a primary challenge instead of trying to govern from the center.”
Outside of this bizarre belief that Republicans aren’t doing exactly what they’ve been doing for decades because that’s their true agenda, there’s little to find objectionable about the plan, though its executive director did tell the Washington Post that the Democrats’ biggest win in Virginia — the NDRC’s “dry run” — were in suburban districts where “fiscal-minded Republicans and independents turned off by Trump are living.” One the one hand, this sounds alarmingly like Chuck Schumer’s infamous comments in 2016 that Hillary Clinton would pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs for every blue-collar Democrat she lost. On the other, it could simply be a description of the electoral realities of the race. It may be too early to tell, but for now, there seems little to disagree with if Obama is putting his fundraising prowess to the narrow task of combating Republican gerrymandering.
Obama’s post-presidency has been outspoken like no other before it in the modern era, something for which he deserves credit — but we should be wary about giving too much. After all, denouncing racism and the various cruelties of the Trump administration is the bare minimum we should expect from any decent person, let alone a former Democratic president, and this is particularly complicated by the fact that Obama has a personal stake in this — it’s his legacy that’s being dismantled.
At the same time, as welcome as it might be to have Obama stumping for Democrats and raising money to combat gerrymandering, the previous year has shown the peril of his continued influence within the Democratic Party. Obama has an affinity for right-wing technocrats, and as the DNC chair episode — and his shocking call to Theresa May— show, he’s more than willing to get his hands dirty to prevent anyone he sees as too left-wing from influencing the future of US politics.
Many spent the weeks before and after Obama’s departure clamoring for a more active, politically engaged post-presidency. It’s too early to say, but perhaps we may come to regret it.