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The core contradiction of Barack Obama’s post-presidency

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States Photo by Jack Gruber-Pool/Getty Images

Barack Obama is back. But don’t expect him to start attacking his successor.

On Monday, the former president will end his self-imposed exile from public life — and series of post-presidential vacations — with a speech at the University of Chicago and a conversation with a small group of the college’s students.

"This event is part of President Obama’s post-presidency goal to encourage and support the next generation of leaders driven by strengthening communities around the country and the world," Obama’s office said in a statement.

He’ll follow that up next week with a speech at the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston, where he’ll accept the Profile in Courage Award, according to the New York Times.

From there, the Times reports, it’s a trip to Italy for a Global Food Innovation Summit about food security amid climate change with former White House chef Sam Kass. And then Obama will be off to Berlin, where he’ll appear with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate.

Throughout, Obama’s aides say that he’ll scrupulously avoid getting into a back and forth with President Trump. But even away from the capital, across the Atlantic, or in the Midwest, Obama will have a world of difficulty escaping Trump’s long shadow.

The core tension of Obama’s post-presidency

Like former presidents before him, Obama views it as essential that he exit the stage to let the new president act free of interference, according to six close aides to the president whom I interviewed in March.

And yet despite that aim, Obama has chosen to pursue goals for his post-presidency that appear to be firmly implanted in the political arena.

That tension is evident in the latest New York Times story documenting his return. The Times writes of Obama’s desire to avoid messy Trump-related politics in his return:

Instead, Mr. Obama is preparing remarks that focus on broader themes he hopes will keep him above the cable-television combat and the Capitol Hill debates: civic engagement, the health of the planet, the need for diplomacy, civil rights and the development of a new generation of young American leaders.

Mr. Obama is not the first president to try to avoid the political fights that consumed his time in office. Mr. Bush resisted pressure from his aides and supporters to criticize his successor during the months after Mr. Obama took office.

There’s an unresolved tension in these paragraphs. Obama both wants to focus on key issues that have inescapably political valences and, simultaneously, avoid the perception of criticizing Trump.

How is that possible? On the environment, Obama’s call to protect “the health of the planet” may sound like generic pablum. But given the positions of much of the Republican Party, that call will be impossible to interpret as anything but a rebuke to the worldview of Trump, who has called climate change “a hoax invented by the Chinese” and is currently considering withdrawing from the Paris climate deal.

Similarly, Obama’s defenses for “the need for diplomacy” may sound uncontroversial to many liberals. But the act of doing so flies directly in the face of Trump’s radical plan to gut the State Department — and essentially do away with the diplomatic corps altogether, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explains. And many Democrats believe Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, represents a threat to basic civil rights.

Even encouraging “civic engagement,” which sounds as vanilla as a former president’s ambitions can get, may in turn result in politicized debate. One key force right now in American politics is the grassroots protests animating the anti-Trump resistance — Obama’s support in January for those protests has already drawn criticism from Republicans.

The fourth goal detailed by the Times — promoting young political leaders — may be the closest the former president can get to escaping politics. But Obama has already translated this aspiration into practice by praising young politicians who happen to fit his particular ideological frame — including, to the anger of those on the left, one ally running to represent the Democratic Party.

Obama may not want these topics to be issues enmeshed in the partisan fray. He may hunger to speak on them and receive the muted partisan response that greets George W. Bush’s watercolors. He’s unlikely to get it.

What’s next for President Obama?

Obama’s team has a workaround between his political goals and desire to remain above the partisan fray.

In six interviews this spring, his aides told me 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 Trump’s election, while also keeping Obama himself above the fray.

Their biggest push to do so will be the Obama Foundation, which is also in charge of creating Obama’s presidential library. It fits the president’s desire to be seen as 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.

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.”

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.)

And to his left, Obama’s plans invite the exact opposite criticism — progressives 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. They argue that if Obama wants to try transforming America’s policies, then he should be willing to openly engage in political debates.

“We got into the weakest position in decades through Obama’s attempt to live in a post-partisan world that doesn’t exist,” says Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group Democracy for America. “[Obama] 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.”