Barack Obama: decent president. Crap post-president. You can’t have it all, I guess.
In the landscape of career opportunity, there is no more promising position than “immediate past president of the United States.” From that position you can do absolutely anything you want with the exception of “be president of the United States.” Imagination is the only limit. For a president with true moral and political convictions, post-presidency is a chance to build upon and reinforce the projects he worked on while in office. It is a chance to tackle problems free of the constraints of Congress and polls and elections. It is a chance to use the most high profile public platform in the world to direct resources and money and attention to the places it most needs to be. It is a chance to do more meaningful work than you could accomplish in the White House. It is, in a very real way, a chance to pay back America for its belief in you—to use the incredible gift you have been given to do the maximum amount of good that you can in the time you have left.
Jimmy Carter, who is viewed as a moral authority today far more than he was as president, is commonly cited as the best example of how to use post-presidential life for the common good. He’s been running around building houses for the poor and running all over the world promoting peace for more than 30 years now. He has legitimately contributed to the spread of global human rights, and has conducted himself as a humble beacon of morality, one who appeals to hardcore lefties and fundamentalist Christians alike. When he dies, he will be remembered as someone who did everything he possibly could to translate his own political clout and personal prominence into help for needy people at home and abroad.
Obama was a far more popular president than Jimmy Carter. But in the year and a half he’s been out of office, he’s been a profound disappointment. First, and most important, his voice has been almost entirely absent. He has rarely spoken out directly about everything that Donald Trump is doing to undermine our democracy. (We don’t have to get into it all here, but it’s a lot!) One can understand his silence in the early days—it was at least worth trying to influence Trump quietly, behind the scenes, to guide him onto a more sustainable and presidential path. Clearly that didn’t happen. We can safely call that a failure. The behind the scenes approach didn’t work. It is more important that ever that Americans and the citizens of the rest of the world see a prominent example of someone who was able to hold the same office Trump does without going entirely off the narcissistic quasi-fascist rails. But Obama’s political work since he left office has been subdued and utterly pedestrian. (He did find time to derail Keith Ellison’s bid to head the DNC, though. Thanks.)
Apart from, gasp, “partisan politics,” it is important for the entire world to see that the American presidency has not permanently descended into the most vile form of crony capitalism and buffoonish Dear Leader worship. We don’t just need Obama to speak out against Trump’s policies—we need someone with his credentials to actively demonstrate grace. When bad things are happening, silence is complicity. Obama may like luxuriating out of the political arena, but that’s not doing much good for the other 300 million of us here.
Saving our democracy from banana republicanism is just one thing that needs to be done right now. Even without Trump’s poison personality, we still face the same set of broad problems that afflicted our country a couple years back when Obama was still in office. We still have an unconscionably high prison population. We’re still riven by racism and sexism. And many of our institutions are being pulled apart at the seams by rising economic inequality, which Obama himself called the “defining challenge of our time.” So what did Barack Obama, one of the most famous men in the world, the immediate past leader of the world’s most powerful nation, do as soon as he left office, to demonstrate his commitment to solving these issues? He went on a kite surfing vacation with a billionaire. Then he got a $65 million book deal. And then, this week, he signed a deal to produce shows for Netflix. This is what he has deemed to be more important than speaking out forcefully against our slow slide into fascism and institutional corruption. This is what he has deemed more important than making even a symbolic gesture towards the idea that there is something more meaningful for a former president to do with his life than to get disgustingly wealthy. Instead of remaining a strong public voice for equality and using his unparalleled platform to draw attention to the very neediest class of people, he has chosen to sell his fame for huge sums and pal around with rich guys. Weird. I thought that was more of a Donald Trump thing.
Barack Obama: your life is not just about you. Get your fucking shit together man.