Barack Obama is literally more popular than Jesus among Democrats. Unfortunately, neither the former president nor any of the party’s 23 candidates currently seeking the 2020 nomination know quite what to do with that information.
Of course, before any serious endorsement conversation can commence, Obama has to finish his book (between rounds of golf and raising millions for his foundation). The writing has been going more slowly than he’d expected, and according to several people who have spoken with him, the 44th president is feeling competitive with his wife, whose own book, Becoming, was the biggest release of 2018 and is on track to be the best-selling memoir in history. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, like others in this story, these sources note he’ll occasionally say in conversation that he’s writing this book himself, while Michelle used a ghostwriter. He’s also trying to balance the historical and political needs of a project that will be up to his standards as a writer, and not 1,000 pages long. Obama’s research process has been intense and convoluted, and it’s still very much ongoing, from the legal pads he had shipped to Marlon Brando’s old island in French Polynesia, where he spent a month in March 2017, to the interviews that aides have been conducting with former members of his administration to jog and build out memories.
The untitled memoir, which will reportedly begin with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech and cover his two terms in the White House, won’t be released in 2019, as his publisher, Penguin Random House, had predicted just a few months ago. Dropping the book this year would have helped Obama largely avoid the current political calendar, and a 2020 release threatens to affect the primaries and the party’s campaign against Donald Trump by re-litigating decisions made a decade ago. Another option is to hold it until 2021, when Obama could be either the voice of a party in despair after another defeat, or poised to grab the spotlight from a freshly elected Democratic president. Publishers tend to save their marquee releases to coincide with the holiday-shopping season—Michelle Obama’s book came out a week before Thanksgiving—but doing so in 2020 would mean the book would hit shelves right after Election Day. Katie Hill, an Obama spokesperson, told me that no decisions have been made on the new timing for publication. Hill gave me a statement carefully written to keep the former president’s distance, saying he “welcomes the debate” playing out in the primaries. “The policy debate has shifted since 2007and 2008, and that’s good—it’s evidence of the progress made since then by activists and elected officials at all levels. Big, bold ideas are a sign of the Democratic Party’s strength, and President Obama urges everyone running to be transparent with voters about how these ideas will work in the nitty-gritty, how they’re paid for, and how they’ll affect the lives of all Americans.”