With an unpredictable foe in the White House, the national party in disarray and even more congressional losses looming in 2018, Democrats are begging Barack Obama to keep himself in the headlines after he leaves office.
He’s eager to deliver.
According to a dozen prominent Democrats, Obama is planning a more politically active post-presidency than perhaps any other previous U.S. leader in modern times. He will work to rebuild the beleaguered party, mentor and train young people and plan strategy with Democratic lawmakers, possibly campaigning and raising money.
“The reality of a Trump administration has sunk in,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a member of the Democratic National Committee from South Carolina and a state legislator there. “You have someone trying to erase your legacy. You have to do all that you can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Obama, 55, departs the White House as a relatively young man with high approval ratings and an unusual plan to stay in Washington, leaving him in the middle of some of the same political fights he fought over the last eight years. The last president to remain in Washington after leaving office was Woodrow Wilson in the 1920s.
“Living in Washington is probably — for former presidents who kind of want to get away from it — is not the place to be,” said Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s secretary of defense and CIA director. “It’s going to be a tough balance for him to have to work to be responsible in retirement and at the same time try to address the policy differences with the Trump administration.”
Obama expects to work largely behind the scenes to rebuild the Democratic Party after largely failing to do so while in the White House, to prepare more young people to get involved in politics and to lobby for state redistricting maps that could allow Democrats more chances to win seats.
“Obama is not going away,” said Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who served in Congress for more than three decades. “For the time being, he is still the most prominent Democrat. They are going to look to him. He is the leader of the party.”
Democrats want — and expect — him to consult with lawmakers about policy, raise money for Democrats and campaign for candidates even as he spends time designing his presidential library in Chicago and mentoring young minority men through his My Brother’s Keeper program.
The political organization that grew out of his campaign to focus on his policy agenda, Organizing for Action, is expected to continue operating after he leaves office, according to former Obama staffers. The group did not respond to a request for comment.
“He basically said he envies us because he’d like to be still in office to some degree to fight with us,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told reporters after Obama met with Democrats on Capitol Hill last week. “But he was very clear that as a citizen, he was going to lend his voice to this.”
Obama has repeatedly said he plans to honor a tradition of former presidents not criticizing their successors. But with a president in the White House trying to erase his achievements and questioning American institutions, even Obama’s spokesman acknowledged a more vocal Obama is now a possibility.
“If there are basic, fundamental American values that are undermined by a specific policy proposal, then he may feel the need to speak out,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
He still has a lot of ambition and a lot more that he would like to do. Most of it he hopes he will be able to do behind the scenes in terms of continuing to stay true to his roots as a community organizer, and motivating and inspiring and even offering training to people who feel called in a similar direction. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
Democrats say Obama may do that by doing what he often did during the presidential campaign: speaking in broad terms about what he calls American values without uttering Trump’s name.
“I think when he talks about America, it will be clear about what’s he is talking about without being overt,” said Matt Bennett, who worked for former President Bill Clinton until his last day in office and later co-founded Third Way, a center-left research center.
In recent weeks, Obama has embarked on a long farewell from the White House.
He held a star-studded goodbye party for friends at the White House attended by Meryl Streep, George Clooney and Beyoncé. He instructed his Cabinet secretaries to release long lists of their accomplishments. And he will deliver his farewell address in his hometown of Chicago on Tuesday.
Former Republican and Democratic Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush held similar events, though Bush’s were more subdued since he was leaving with low approval ratings, their aides say. Former President George H.W. Bush was more reserved after losing his bid for a second term to Clinton, an aide says.
Obama would have likely engaged in some of the same activities if Hillary Clinton had won, but ever since Trump defeated her, Obama’s goodbye has taken on a different tone.
“When you are caught off guard, it adds to the urgency,” said Jonathan Felts, who worked for George W. Bush until his last day in office.
Obama is trying to ensure the history books reflect his accomplishments — and to motivate Democrats to defend them.
“It’s pointed entirely to Democratic officeholders in Congress and the states to take heart and not take it lying down,” said Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “It’s a bulwark against Trump. I know if Secretary Clinton had been elected it would be an entirely different posture.”
You’re trying to arm those people to go out and be ambassador of your legacy, giving them the best ammunition to proselytize. Anytime you are handing over power to another party, you have to arm your people to inform their networks. Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who worked in the George W. Bush White House
Lynda Tran, who served as national press secretary for Organizing for America, said Obama’s activities had taken on an “urgent” tone now that there was a “realization and understanding that many things are going to be under fire.”
Max Stier, founding president of the Partnership for Public Service, which launched the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, said that often when a president touted his legacy it could help solidify those accomplishments.
Obama, for example, adopted George W. Bush’s efforts on combating malaria and AIDS in Africa. “The focus is how to institutionalize the change the incumbent has brought,” Stier said.