In the cafes of New York City and the offices of Chicago, blue America seeks his wisdom like he’s a prophet or a sage. What should we do? they ask. Show us the path.
He likes to respond with a joke — a dad joke.
“Well, you could move to Wyoming or North Dakota,” Barack Obama has taken to telling city liberals, according to one of his senior aides.
Since leaving the White House, Obama has publicly embraced the traditionally apolitical role of most former American presidents. "He's been looking forward to a life without the title of president that automatically draws resistance and the Pavlovian response of opposition," says one adviser close to Obama. "As a former president, you are liberated from that baggage and can reach people in a way that's not so political.”
But even as Obama tries to transcend partisanship, his jokes suggest political aims. This is the tension that already dominates his post-presidency, as revealed by interviews with six current and former aides to the former president: Obama wants to rise above the partisan muck, but he’s also eager to accomplish goals that are inescapably political in nature.
His team has a workaround. Obama’s aides say he believes that if he can take politically neutral steps to improve democracy — by bringing people together through “civic engagement,” or by giving grassroots activists the tools for community organizing — then that will change the political landscape that culminated in Donald Trump’s election, while also keeping Obama himself above the fray.
Critics to his left and right say this theory is riddled with contradictions. They note that it has left Obama largely silent as Trump hacks away at his signature achievements, while simultaneously working behind the scenes to thwart a branch of activists in his own party.
What may be even more perplexing, critics say, is that Obama is still chasing the mirage of a nonpartisan solution to America’s political crisis, after eight years of failing to find it in the White House.
But Obama thinks he has a model for success. And it begins with his wife.
The FLOTUS model: or, why Barack Obama will not be leading the resistance
Michelle Obama came into the White House beset by criticism, reviled by the far right for a speech in which she appeared to criticize the country’s history.
She left the White House not just one of the most popular Democrats but among the most popular political figures in the country. Somewhere along the way, the first lady executed a series of relatively low-profile initiatives — on things like nutrition and girls’ education — that the president views as high-impact. She succeeded, he believes, in part because those issues didn’t become as polarized as they would have if the president had embraced them, according to one senior adviser.
Michelle Obama didn’t rely on political support on Capitol Hill, billions of dollars in the federal budget, or the vast apparatus of the White House to achieve her goals. Instead, aides say, the former president thinks she had roughly the same assets as first lady as he has in his post-presidency — the bully pulpit, an ability to convene experts and CEOs and top minds from around the world, and the freedom to not have to drag along a Senate majority every step of the way.
That model, as Obama envisions it, appears to require him avoiding the public resistance movement against Trump. Obama views it as a priority to not get dragged down into a personal back and forth with the current president, or to openly criticize the Republican Party, six aides to the president said in separate interviews. Even when Trump asserted without proof that his predecessor had “wiretapped” Trump Tower, Obama relied on an aide to knock down the charge in a statement rather than speak out publicly himself.
“It's a return to the president's core principle of grassroots activism. That principle is going to be what drives a lot of his activity in the post-presidency,” says Eric Schultz, an Obama adviser.
This plan partly springs from tradition. One aide argued that Obama takes seriously the norm of presidents not criticizing their successors, and pointed to the president’s pride at turning over control of the White House smoothly. In part, it stems from Obama’s desire to allow other Democratic Party leaders to fill the void being left by his departure from the scene.
But this is also Obama getting back to his brand. In 2004, he rose to national stardom due to a speech in which he talked about the essential similarity of red and blue America. In his first term as president, he made a point of going to meetings with conservative pundits to dispel the “myth” that “the two political parties were impossibly divided on the big issues confronting America,” as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote at the time.
Toward the end of his second term, with political polarization still very much intact, Obama grew increasingly comfortable abandoning those ideals to push his governing agenda (by unilaterally issuing an executive order on immigration widely loathed by Republicans, for instance). His time outside of the White House now offers him a second chance at those aspirations, even if analysts don’t give him much shot at faring any better this time.
But there’s a big difference between Obama’s aims and his wife’s: she carefully chose noncontroversial issues, like nutrition, while many of his aims and concerns, particularly post-Trump, are naturally polarizing. Obama’s post-presidency will involve leading an an attack with former Attorney General Eric Holder on Republican gerrymandering, encouraging young progressive political talent, and shaping the Democratic Party — all of which threaten his simultaneous desire to rise above messy partisan politics.
“In their post-presidencies, we often see presidents trying to compensate for weaknesses or failings in their record,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “It looks like he's going back to that original idea of hoping to rise above the fray. I just don’t think it has much of a chance of working.”
Can the Obama Foundation fix politics without “being political”?
Barack and Michelle Obama are still in “the embryonic stages” of deciding exactly what to do with their new post-presidential futures, one aide said. There’s some discussion of having them lead a big push against climate change, for instance.
Their biggest push will be the Obama Foundation, which is also in charge of creating Obama’s presidential library. It fits the president’s FLOTUS model of being scrupulously apolitical — but would likely also have repercussions that quite clearly are political, and may quickly be politicized.
That internal contradiction is already bubbling to the surface. Among the foundation’s goals, for instance, are figuring out to how give grassroots organizers and young people the tools to convene meetings or rally around a cause. (For now, the foundation’s website, Obama.org, is soliciting stories from Americans about “what it means to be a good citizen.” It will announce exactly what these programs are at a later date.)
“It will be a living, working center for citizenship,” says Amy Brundage, former White House deputy communications director and now an Obama Foundation official.
Adds Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign and the first director of Organizing for America: “He wants to try to provide an environment similar to the one he had when he did community organizing, because it provided him the tools to be a success in public life.”
Praising “citizenship” has been Obama’s go-to move since Trump’s election. His farewell address called “participation ... each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship” the foundation of the American republic, without which the Constitution would be meaningless. After protests erupted against Trump’s “Muslim ban” in January, Obama released a statement that he was “heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country” and by “citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble.”
Obama’s conception of citizenship is pluralistic — he says it must “start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do,” and that it hinges on “presuming a reservoir of goodness in others.”
That doesn’t amount to defining the job of a citizen as voting for the Democratic Party. But Trump supporters have been quick to note that Obama’s encouragement of civic engagement and grassroots activism may have political consequences nonetheless. To them, doing so is already a violation of the hands-off tradition of former presidents. (President Bush didn’t openly encourage the Tea Party town halls held to protest Obamacare in 2010, for instance.)
“Obama’s trying to have it both ways — to appear presidential and nonpartisan, and at the same time agitating the grassroots level,” says Roger Stone, a former adviser to Trump, in an interview. “What I think Obama is doing is publicly trying to appear above the fray while quietly working behind the scenes.”
And on the other side, Obama invites the exact opposite criticism — progressives to the president’s left wonder if his silence wrongly validates Trump while his fundraising will also siphon critical resources away from those who are willing to engage in open combat against the current president. (The cost of Obama’s library alone is expected to balloon to more than $1 billion.)
“The president should be doing exactly what everyone else in the Democratic Party should be doing: following the resistance, fighting back against Trump, or getting out of the way,” says Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group Democracy for America.
“Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, millions of American across the country — they’re all out there desperately trying to protect the institutions of American democracy,” he says. “I hope Obama can look at that and say, ‘It’s time I followed along.’”
Obama and the DNC race
On at least one political front, Obama has stayed deeply engaged: He worked the phones to help tip the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) had sewn up the endorsements of dozens of state Democratic Party chairs in his campaign against Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Ellison had won most of the congressional endorsements, including those of the party’s senior leadership. He had the strong support of Bernie Sanders and his progressive fans.
Obama helped Perez overcome all that. Perez’s staff produced a list of every voting member of the Democratic National Committee and the issue they thought was most important to him or her. They sent it to Obama’s team.
The White House veterans quickly drew up a plan, going through the list and deciding who in the former president’s orbit was best suited to winning over each DNC voting member, sources close to the president said. In the weeks before February’s election in Atlanta, Valerie Jarrett, David Simas, and Paulette Aniskoff — three longtime Obama political aides — lobbied individual DNC members. For others, former Vice President Joe Biden filled in.
“If Obama was the only one who could make a difference,” says one aide to the former president, “then he'd be the one to call.”
Before he entered the DNC race, Perez spoke with Obama several times about why he should run. Obama personally argued that Perez was particularly qualified to win back onetime Obama voters who then supported Trump in November, according to one aide.
Ellison requested a meeting with the president, but never got it, according to two sources.
Observers have been mystified by the Obama White House’s decision to spark a Democratic Party civil war over the DNC chair race so soon after its clobbering in November. After all, most agree that Ellison and Perez are similarly progressive — and that there didn’t seem to be any real substantial gaps in their strategies for fixing the Democratic Party.
Obama aides say the intervention was related to the former president’s reluctance to openly criticize Trump. By helping ensure a close ally like Perez is running the DNC, they said, Obama felt like he was liberating himself from having to personally respond to Trump over the next several years.
Obama, in other words, was trying to extricate himself from the partisan fray — but by taking action in the DNC race that risked antagonizing his own party’s base.
It’s not clear it worked.
“Going out of his way to find a challenger to Keith Ellison, who was the consensus candidate and a hero of the progressive grassroots, was selfish and counterproductive,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the left-wing organization the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Some liberals, though, are lining up for Obama’s advice. Often, he’s giving it.
Obama’s team is structuring the personnel and policy of the Democratic Party
A few days after Trump’s inauguration, about 15 Obama aides began moving their supplies into a one-floor office less than 2 miles from the White House.
The Obamas themselves first visited the space in the first week of February. One staffer keeps a sketch of the White House South Lawn near his desk, next to a football adorned with the presidential seal. The former president’s personal office is located right down the hall from the first lady’s. Visitors are greeted with a sign painted in black lettering, “Welcome to the Office of President Obama,” ringed with handprints in green, red, and blue. The kitchen is stocked with Girl Scout cookies.
“It feels a bit like campaign office meets startup,” one staffer says.
The analogy speaks to the uncertainty about what exactly Obama’s team has been assembled to do.
The Obama office is stocked with key Democratic talent, such as Cody Keenan, the president’s speechwriter; Anita Decker Breckenridge, his former deputy chief of staff; and Caroline Adler Morales, the first lady’s communications director.
His team has been in talks with the offices of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer about once a week, one source said. They are also “in regular touch” with officials at the DNC, the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Governors Association, and several other progressive groups.
When Trump announced a new regulatory freeze on January 29, for instance, Obama aides provided congressional Democrats with information about a similar order he had issued in 2009. They monitor, and sometimes challenge, Trump’s accusations in the news.
On Tuesday night, the Huffington Post reported about this crew of Obama aides assembled in DC’s West End, with a headline declaring that Obama has a “bite your tongue policy on Trump.” A few hours later, a different headline based on the same reporting materialized on Breitbart, this time laden with ominous undertones: “Obama deploying dozen-strong team to ‘keep tabs’ on Trump administration.”
Just a couple of days earlier, Obama aides were stressing to me that the exact same office the Huffington Post and Breitbart were arguing over would itself be searching for ways to solve the partisan media echo chamber that so worries the president.
“Getting back to people talking to each other even if they fundamentally disagree is something he's very interested in, particularly in this on-demand media environment where people gravitate toward their corners,” one aide said. “He's very curious: How do we change that?”
Added another, when discussing their goals for the Obama Foundation: “You’ll find spaces where independents and Republicans can engage on this issue.”
It’s the essential question for Obama. Should the president worry about appearing too partisan to his opponents? Or is it more important for him to be forthcoming to his supporters about what he believes?
Ben Wikler, head of MoveOn.org, says Obama’s current approach is smart: Try to allow new voices to come to the fore, while subtly trying to look for ways to fuel the forces of the opposition.
“The real action now — the most powerful force in politics today — is the millions of people marching and demonstrating and demanding the protection of their health care,” Wikler says. “Recognizing that power comes from below — as opposed to oracular pronouncements from former officials — is a shrewd recognition. One reason Obamacare has become so popular is that it’s being seen as ‘care’ rather than ‘Obama.’ But that requires him getting out of the picture.”
But to others, Obama’s approach merely underscores the core failing not just of his post-presidency but of his entire political career.
“We got into the weakest position in decades through Obama’s attempt to live in a post-partisan world that doesn’t exist,” says Chamberlain, of DFA.
Even some neutral observers think this may be the wrong moment for Obama’s diligent avoidance of the partisan fray. “We can't get to the point where we have these bipartisan or transpartisan discussions until Democrats win some elections — because nothing else is going to stop this juggernaut on the right,” says Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist.
Democrats will get their first chance to cut into the Republican congressional majority next month, when a special election is held in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, to replace current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
The leading Democratic candidate is Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide. His campaign has not yet heard from Obama.