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.