America Will Miss Obama When He's Gone

Obama may be a polarizing figure right now, but he'll be immensely popular once he leaves office.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

It’s 2018, and Barack Obama leans toward the computer in his Chicago townhouse and punches in the title of his memoir. He enjoys the silence and the solitude. It’s been over a decade since he had time to write. This is Obama’s third memoir and probably not the last. Aged only 57, his story is still in mid-stream. What next? Go back to teaching law? Charitable work? Whichever avenue he pursues, Obama can take encouragement from sky-high approval ratings. As soon as he departed the White House, Obama’s polling numbers started to pick up. Now, he’s one of the most admired men in America. People even see a touch of King or Mandela.

This optimistic vision may seem outlandish today, as Obama’s approval rating is stuck in the mid-40s, the Tea Party depicts him as an un-American socialist, and progressives tire of endless fighting in the Middle East. Many people have mentally checked out from his presidency. But the way that Americans think about Obama today is not the way they will see him in three or five years’ time.

Ex-presidents often enjoy an uptick in support. After departing the limelight, they become more popular, and people recall their administrations more positively. Today, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter are all viewed favorably by a majority of Americans.

Perhaps the most striking example is George W. Bush. He left office not so much under a cloud, as under a miasma. The trifecta of Iraq, Katrina, and a financial crisis meant that his approval ratings in 2008 barely scraped 30 percent. In an informal poll of around one hundred professional historians in 2008, over 98 percent judged Bush’s presidency as a failure. Nearly two-in-three (61 percent) said Bush was the worst president in American history—worse even than James Buchanan, who is widely blamed for helping to trigger the Civil War.

Since 2008, Americans have fallen prey to Bush Enchantment Syndrome. In 2010, billboards and merchandise started popping up with the slogan “Miss Me Yet?” The number of Americans who rated Bush as an “outstanding” or “above average” president increased from 17 percent in 2009 to 25 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, by 2014, 53 percent of people held a favorable view of Bush.

There are several things at work here. After leaving Washington D.C. in a helicopter bound for Andrews Air Force Base, and then taking a flight to Texas (like George W. Bush), or a train-ride to Independence, Missouri (like Harry Truman), ex-presidents play new and generally attractive roles. There’s the ceremonial ribbon cutter. There’s the charity fundraiser. And there’s the (often self-serving) memoir writer.

In addition, presidential veterans benefit from retreating from the partisan battlefield. The tribalism of American politics makes it hard to push approval ratings much above 50 percent for long. But after presidents head off into the sunset, half of America is no longer dead set against them.

Ex-presidents also look better in the light of their successors’ sins. The media’s Eye of Sauron turns to the next guy and searches for every imperfection. Americans suddenly remember what they liked about the last president—who is illuminated in the more forgiving sepia glow of retirement.

Stepping out of the political spotlight will do wonders for Obama’s image. When he appears in the news after 2016 it will probably be in a favorable story, stressing his public service. Partisan fury will soften. Americans will appreciate Obama’s positive traits, especially those not shared by his successor.

After leaving office, Obama may enjoy an unusually strong surge in support. His presidency makes a potentially great story: the first African-American in the White House, who helped the country recover from recession and ended two wars. Obama’s tale fits neatly into the overarching American narrative of expanding liberty. That rosy story has been lost amid the grinding business of government. But after 2016, hope and change could make a comeback. To support Obama after 2016 will be to embrace racial progress, to feel good about one’s country and oneself.

And Obama may also benefit from the Republican mid-term victories in 2014. If the GOP overreaches, Obama could leave office looking like the guardian of moderation.

Obama has been a good president. But he could be a great ex-president. With his intelligence, calmness, and good humor, together with his strong and attractive family, he’s a natural fit for the roles of memoirist, humanitarian, professor, and elder statesman.

By the end of the decade, Obama’s personal approval ratings could be 60 percent or higher. Historians may place him toward the top of the all-star rankings. Interestingly, more people may claim they voted for Obama than actually did vote for him. Pollsters routinely find that people misreport their behavior in a bid for social desirability. In the 1964 presidential election, for example, Lyndon Johnson won a crushing victory over Barry Goldwater. Afterward, the number of Americans who admitted voting for Goldwater was 6 percent shy of the real figure. If there’s a wave of Obama nostalgia, expect some non-voters, or even John McCain and Mitt Romney supporters, to say they backed the first African-American president.

Of course, none of this is set in stone. The depth of the nation’s love affair with post-presidential Obama will hinge on the next two years. If there’s a national scandal then all bets are off. Nixon, for instance, is not remembered fondly.

But Americans may fall hard for Obama in winter. The emergence of a positive narrative about the Obama presidency will be of enormous value to the progressive project in America. People think about politics in terms of stories. Modern conservatism, for example, is rooted in a heroic tale about the Reagan presidency. If Obama takes his place in the progressive pantheon, alongside FDR, JFK, and Clinton, it will inspire liberals beyond 2020.

When Obama sits down to write his memoir, gratitude for the outpouring of support may be tinged with regret. He’s most popular when he least needs it. Obama may look back to his final two years in office, those tough days of 2015 and 2016, and think: I really could have done with this support then.