Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has a great new interview with President Obama in Vanity Fair. In the wide-ranging interview, they discuss Abraham Lincoln, Obama’s biggest regrets from his time in office, and how a visit to the pyramids reminded Obama that cable news doesn’t really matter.
But perhaps the most intriguing bit was when, in a brief discussion of Obama’s plans for his post-presidency, Obama hinted that he planned to start speaking out more like an activist than a president.
There are “things,” he told Goodwin, “that in some ways I suspect I’m able to do better out of this office.” He elaborated that because of the “institutional constraints” of the presidency, “there are things I cannot say.”
He went on to essentially say he wanted to use his post-presidential bully pulpit more like an activist than a venerable elder statesman. “There are institutional obligations I have to carry out that are important for a president of the United States to carry out, but may not always align with what I think would move the ball down the field on the issues that I care most deeply about,” he said.
And while vague, this is an intriguing hint that Obama is thinking about being a very different ex-president than we’ve been used to.
Recent ex-presidents have avoided controversy. But Obama suggests he’ll embrace it.
The typical recent ex-president has retreated into a career that involves some charitable work and some buckraking. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all mostly withdrew from the daily give and take of politics, and certainly from controversial issues.
Obama will likely do some of both. But he’s unusual in a few key ways. First, as he reminds Goodwin in the interview, he’ll be just 55 years old when he leaves office — if he remains healthy, he could be around for decades. Second, he’s relatively popular now that he’s leaving office. And third, there’s his past as a community organizer.
So it makes sense that Obama wants to help keep pushing for change on issues he feels are important. And by suggesting there are things he can’t say now but will say once he’s out of office, he’s implying that he won’t shy away from controversy.
Head over to Vanity Fair to check out the full excerpt, and to learn more about what Obama is thinking as his presidency winds down.