Obama Faces the Ex-President's Dilemma

The former president must decide how to remain an influential player in the world without intervening too much in the national debate.

Luca Bruno / AP

“I see you Barry,” said comedian Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondent’s Association dinner. “What you doin’ right now? You jet skiing while the world burns?” After leaving office, Barack Obama spent a few weeks palling around with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, and Oprah Winfrey in French Polynesia. Now the vacation’s over, how can Obama maximize his sway in American politics? The answer lies in understanding the source of his influence.

President Trump’s strength is founded on hard power, or the ability to coerce people through payments and force. As commander-in-chief, millions of men and women stand ready to follow his orders. With a stroke of the pen, Trump can renounce America’s commitment to the Paris climate treaty. Or he can put the pen down and press the nuclear button—and here, there are no checks and balances.

By contrast, as an ex-president, Obama has virtually no hard power. He even had to learn how to use the coffee machine at home. Instead, Obama’s strength lies with soft power, or the attraction of his image, beliefs, and values, in getting others to do what they otherwise might not. Soft power is still power, but it’s influence through seduction rather than coercion.

Here, Obama faces what I call the ex-president’s dilemma. He wants to remain an influential player in the political world, but intervening in the national debate may diminish his image, and therefore his power.

The good news is that retired commanders-in-chief usually get a boost in their approval ratings when they enter private life. The bad news is that this boost may be contingent on holding their tongue.

In a speech in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt celebrated, “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” But for an ex-president, the political arena is a dangerous place to be. By staying above the fray, they gain the chance to enjoy a rosy image, carrying out charitable work, and becoming an elder statesman and a symbol of the nation. Wading into the arena, however, by making speeches, and condemning the other side is a risky move. In a partisan age, the moment an ex-president attacks his successor, he antagonizes around half the population.

Consider the example of George W. Bush. When he left office, in the wake of the Iraq War, the bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis, only 35 percent of people had a favorable view of Bush. In an informal poll of historians in 2008, 61 percent said that Bush was the worst president in American history. But then a strange thing happened. His favorability score ticked upward, and in 2015, 52 percent of people had a positive view of Bush. One reason is that he largely kept out of politics and refused to condemn Obama. Being commander-in-chief is a tough job, said Bush, and “A former president doesn’t need to make it any harder.” Bush’s absence from the arena made the heart grow fonder.

Given this dilemma, what’s the best strategy for Obama to maximize his influence?

The first choice is to jet-ski into the sunset. Obama could drop off the political grid, and stick to writing his memoirs, charitable work, and improving his golf handicap. It’s a tempting choice. Few on the Democratic side of the aisle would begrudge Obama a break after eight exhausting years battling an intransigent Republican Party.

If he does nothing controversial for the next few years, Obama will probably become widely admired. Back in January 2015, when his approval ratings were in the mid-40s, I predicted that Obama would be hugely popular once he left office. This didn’t require any great prophetic ability because ex-presidents usually get a bump in support.

But Obama is also uniquely qualified to be an ex-president. He has intelligence, grace, and a great family. He also benefits from Trump’s unpopularity. Obama is Trump’s dark doppelganger: eloquent and professorial where Trump is gauche and bombastic. As the media’s Eye of Sauron fixates on Trump’s sins, people miss the last guy. Most importantly, Obama represents a story—America’s first black president. This tale got lost amidst the partisan helter-skelter of the last eight years. But if Obama avoids the partisan battlefield, even many former critics will celebrate this narrative because it makes them feel better about America. Having largely stayed out of the limelight since the election, Obama’s approval rating is already at 62 percent—far above that of other national politicians.

The jet skiing option would give Obama a degree of indirect influence. Obama’s popularity spills over into anything associated with him—which psychologists call the “halo effect.” For example, one reason why Obamacare has become more popular is that Obama himself has become more popular. You’ll know when Obama gets really popular because Republicans will stop using the term Obamacare, and will start referring to the Affordable Care Act.

But there’s a big problem with following the Bush trajectory. Choosing to jet ski means that Obama is an observer even if the world burns. What if Trump plans a damnatio memoriae, or a systematic effort to obliterate Obama’s legacy, including health care, climate change, the Iran deal, and so on? Is Obama willing to see his life’s work destroyed by a man who won just 45.9 percent of the popular vote–only 0.2 percent higher than John McCain received during his drubbing in 2008?

The second option lies at the other end of the scale: Lead the resistance. Obama could grasp the sword, gladiator-style, and race into the arena, becoming the face of the opposition, making speeches, and running television advertisements. After all, he has the communication skills and the credibility as a former commander-in-chief. And he has Michelle. So why not go back to being a community organizer—this time organizing progressive America?

Taking the fight to Trump would come at a price—and not just for Obama’s golf handicap. It would energize conservative opponents and erode Obama’s image, which is the basis of his soft power. Furthermore, the Democratic Party may not want to be led by yesterday’s man. And a scorched earth campaign would entrench today’s partisan divide—and perhaps provoke ex-president Trump to wage war on a Democratic successor.

The best option for Obama to maximize his influence is the third choice: picking his battles. This means entering the arena selectively, when the pay-off is high, or the cost in popularity is low. He can oppose egregious violations of the American creed. Obama suggested that if an issue, “goes to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I’ll examine it when it comes.” Alternatively, if the fate of a critical policy issue lies on a knife edge—for example, is the Senate nears a vote on health-care reform—Obama could intervene to try and tip the result one way. He also recorded a video to endorse Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election—an action with some upside and little downside.

Meanwhile, anything Obama can do to boost his brand is useful. His memoirs will be the publishing event of the decade, and will shape the narrative of his presidency. Appearances at national events, charitable work, meetings with world leaders—all of this tops up his soft power.

But soft power is a fragile resource. Reputation can be damaged far more easily than it can be boosted. It’s hard to see the benefit of Obama speaking at a Wall Street firm’s health-care conference for the princely sum of $400,000. After all, Obama is not like Harry Truman, who faced penury in retirement. The Obamas reportedly just signed twin book deals worth $65 million. Senator Bernie Sanders said, “I think at a time when people are so frustrated with the power of Wall Street and the big-money interests, I think it is unfortunate that President Obama is doing this.”

Obama should pay heed to the experience of another center-left politician, Tony Blair. The British prime minister won three elections and then retired undefeated in 2007. At Blair’s final Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament, the opposition party rose to its feet and applauded.

But what did Blair do in retirement? There was teaching, charitable work, and a role as Middle East envoy. But Blair also accepted lucrative advisory roles for banks, and consulted for the dictatorship in Kazakhstan, reportedly offering advice on how to spin a domestic crackdown. These business interests generated considerable revenue but they also sapped his soft power. Blair and Blairism became terms of opprobrium in much of the British Labour Party, which subsequently lurched to the left and now faces electoral annihilation.

Swapping hard power for soft power means swapping the hammer of coercion for the arts of seduction. Obama retains influence, real influence. It lies with his image, his wide grin, and his pen. And he has a story, if he can keep it.