Former President Barack Obama’s Thursday talk to House Democrats is a stunning break from the norm that erstwhile holders of the nation’s highest office keep their domestic political activities to a minimum. Obama is speaking to them as Democrats try to navigate the midterm elections and revive a stalled legislative agenda — things the current president would normally be expected to address.
Obama’s willingness to rewrite the post-presidential game comes at a particularly dangerous political moment, when American traditions safeguarding the peaceful transition of power need to be reinforced.
It is hardly the first time Obama has broken this norm, however. Rather than a one-time infraction that can be papered over, this latest display could help cement a new status quo that encourages former presidents who are constitutionally barred from holding office to overstep their boundaries. And Obama’s willingness to rewrite the post-presidential game comes at a particularly dangerous political moment, when American traditions safeguarding the peaceful transition of power need to be reinforced rather than eroded.
Last year, Obama was the “hype man” at a major United Nations climate conference, joining and arguably upstaging President Joe Biden. In 2019, Obama launched a major initiative to help Democrats with redistricting, contending it would counteract Republican gerrymandering ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
And Obama has rebuked former President Donald Trump after leaving office so many times it’s hard to keep track. He said Trump’s use of a racially charged term to describe the coronavirus “pisses me off.” He said Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, imposed after the Republican had campaigned on a broader ban on Islamic immigration, was un-American. Even before Trump took office, Obama claimed the right to speak out against his successor when our “core values may be at stake.”
Obama did keep quiet for most of the Democratic presidential primaries until his former vice president had clearly secured the nomination. But then he took to the general election campaign trail and savaged Trump. He hit Trump on racial issues, his climate policies, his pandemic response, even his personal character.
That is private citizen Obama’s constitutional right, of course. And some politicking on the campaign trail by previous presidents is expected. Past ex-presidents have frequently spoken at party conventions (former President Gerald Ford notably said at the 1996 GOP confab that then-President Bill Clinton was “neither a Ford or a Lincoln” but a “convertible Dodge”).
They are also known to write the occasional op-ed about current policy debates, and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter visited with foreign leaders and advised the current occupants of the Oval Office. Obama himself once ceded the presidential podium to Clinton, who gleefully kept talking. President Ronald Reagan sent all the living ex-presidents to represent him at slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s funeral. Far more often, though, they engage in nonpartisan activities, like raising money for hurricane relief or helping Haiti.
But Obama has moved beyond the occasional, stray campaign appearances of his predecessors or wonky policy weigh-ins to become a heavy political operator in his retirement. Some view him as a kingmaker in the Democratic Party, arguably more its leader than the less popular and ineffectual Biden — which may be why he was called in Thursday and at other moments.
Indeed, allies describe the ex-president as having a “global following,” as if that’s a justification for his post-presidential interventions. “Poll after poll show young people in particular are despairing of whether democracy can work, whether politicians are up to the task,” longtime Democratic leader John Podesta told CNN when the former president addressed the United Nations climate conference. “They see Obama as inspirational and who tells it like it is.”
But providing a temporary boost to the Democratic Party can’t be more important than the broader interests of democracy itself. Obama’s activities come as close to a violation of the one-president-at-a-time principle as we have seen in recent memory. (Reagan could have tried to similarly overshadow his successor, President George H.W. Bush, and subsequent Republican leaders with his party’s base, but age and Alzheimer’s intervened.) Obama, meanwhile, is still only 60 years old, much younger than Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
Of course, Obama’s activities aren’t taking place in a political vacuum. His immediate successor is considering running again and has encouraged some of his supporters to think he’s still the rightful president — robbed of another four years through unproven voter fraud claims — or will even be reinstated before the conclusion of Biden’s term. So the current president is laboring in the shadow of two ex-presidents.
Bizarre conspiracy theories aside, Trump is a major driver of Obama’s post-presidential political activities. The 45th president made rolling back Obama’s legacy a big part of his own agenda, necessarily drawing the former commander in chief back into the debate; The New York Times described Trump as pulling Obama out of retirement.
Trump was the leading proponent of birtherism, the erroneous and racist notion that Obama was ineligible for the presidency. And of course, Obama shares the prevailing view among Democrats and never-Trump conservatives that his successor is a uniquely malign force in American politics, a position that has hardened following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to disrupt the vote count confirming Biden’s victory.
At the same time, Obama spent much of his two terms criticizing his predecessor, President George W. Bush, to a greater degree than was normal at the time — even though it was more difficult to argue Bush posed an existential challenge to democracy and though he himself leveled no blistering personal attacks on Obama. (Bush, for his part, had no problem gracefully accepting that his time in office had passed and ignoring Obama’s attacks rather than using them as justification to re-enter the fray.)
It is almost as if Obama and Trump have emerged as dueling presidents-in-exile to the detriment of the man now in office, and likely those who come after them. Biden cannot escape Obama’s shadow or Trump’s wrath, with each predecessor representing their slices of the electorate better than he does.
It would be a supreme irony if the precedents Obama is setting create a glide path for the man he so adamantly opposes — who, unlike Obama, is actually constitutionally eligible for another term — to keep up his own never-ending campaign.