One year from today, Washington DC will host the inauguration of America’s next president (unless President-elect Trump relocates the ceremony to Trump Tower). Who exactly that will be seems an even greater mystery than usual. More certain, however, is that we won’t be hearing the last of President Obama after he leaves the White House.
The authors of the Federalist Papers, a series of Founding-era “op-eds” that advocated adopting the Constitution, predicted this—specifically, in Federalist No. 72, which defended unlimited presidential terms. It argued that unlimited terms would keep presidents in power for as long as they could get reelected, which would encourage better behavior, as opposed to automatic removal, which could encourage recklessness if removal from office resulted regardless.
It would also limit the number of dissatisfied ex-presidents haunting the public square. “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of government,” Federalist No. 72 asks,
…to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?
Whether Federalist No. 72 was right or wrong about term limits, we definitely deal with the ex-presidential ghosts it predicted, if not all would-be third termers frustrated by the Twenty-Second Amendment. Some have kept a low political profile after leaving office, as both Bushes have done. Others, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have kept a high one.
The Cult of the Presidency
Although these examples suggest a partisan divide, the ex-presidential temptation is bipartisan, for three reasons. First, the aura of the presidency has risen and become a sort of currency, with which one can buy all sorts of influence and attention. Second, our media environment welcomes these newly elevated figures to lend authority to whatever narratives happen to duel on a given day. Third, and perhaps most important, the conventional wisdom of a president’s time in office is still forming in its immediate aftermath, which encourages the post-president to attempt to shape the inchoate opinion of this legacy.
Will President Obama resist these powerful incentives or succumb to them? Evidence from the Obama universe so far suggests not. According to The New York Times, Obama seeks a “blend” of the quiet and the loud post-presidency, as David Plouffe, his former campaign manager, put it.
But based on the amount of Silicon Valley titans, Hollywood players (including Steven Spielberg), and other elites mobilizing on behalf of the Obama post-presidential project, one doubts Obama will spend the entirety of his life after the presidency “on a beach somewhere drinking out of a coconut,” as he claimed he would do right after the next president is inaugurated.
A Compulsion to Control
For Obama, there is far too much at stake. He must not only ensure that the right narratives about his time in office dominate; he must also wrap his own achievements into the supposedly inevitable conquest of the progressive political movement of which he is a part.
What precise form this will take remains uncertain, though Obama seems likely to hew to the modern post-presidency model described by the Washington Free Beacon’s Matt Continetti: “Post-presidencies have become as competitive and grueling as presidencies themselves, requiring elaborate libraries and foundations, meaningful causes, books and speeches and appropriately timed social media indignation, all with the goal of remaining, even tangentially, in the media spotlight.”
Andrew Stiles, Continetti’s colleague at the Free Beacon, has half-seriously speculated that Obama would fit in well at Vox.com, where he could continue to broadcast his brand of pseudo-technocratic liberalism.
Both are good guesses. My own sense is that Obama will give a lot of (paid) speeches, come out relatively quickly with a book about his tenure, and appear frequently in the media, whether the next president is a Republican (in which case Obama will defend his own record and deny blame for whatever that president will have to deal with) or a Democrat (in which case Obama will defend the new office-holder).
Either way, the conclusion of Obama’s time in office won’t mean the end of his time in the public square. Indeed, it will only have just begun.