At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves: Barack Obama would make a pretty damn good ex-president.
We're not saying he should become an ex-president after just four years in office—only that this line of thinking isn't premature. With the economy uncertain and ever more Americans occupying Main Street, the latest polls show Obama has about a coin flip's chance of winning another term in office—or of being plunged, just 13 months from now, into the most exclusive retirement club on earth.
So it's worth considering: what would his next act look like? If defeated, Obama would become, at 51, the youngest former president in more than a century. (Only Teddy Roosevelt was younger: he was 50 when he left office in 1909.) With strong health and an agile mind--and no shortage of ways to make staggering sums of money--Obama would have the time and skills to mount one of the most impressive ex-presidencies on record. And if history is a guide, the worse Obama fares as commander in chief, the better he might shine as ex-commander in chief. "It may sound whimsical, but it's true," says historian Richard Norton Smith. An administration that ends badly creates an equal and opposite zeal for rehabilitating a legacy, says Smith.
Example A is Jimmy Carter. Fired after four years of stagflation and malaise, the former peanut farmer reinvented the office of the ex-presidency, thrusting himself into world diplomacy, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Richard Nixon is well regarded by historians for his voluminous output of foreign-policy books while in exile. And the consensus best ex-president of the last 100 years is Herbert Hoover. The man who ushered in the Great Depression later became an honored statesman and helped Europe not starve after World War II. "There are striking parallels between one-term presidents, highly unpopular, who went on to achieve not a conventional political luster but a public respect bordering on veneration for the nonpolitical work that they undertook," Smith says.
For Obama, losing would surely burn. "You have a terrible narcissistic wound when you lose an election. You feel rejected," says Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst and author of Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. But for the country's first African-American president, a place in the history books is already assured, and further amplified by landmark health-care legislation and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Once he got over the embarrassment of defeat, he would likely find that life in what Hoover called "that most exclusive trade union" isn't all that bad.
For one thing, the money's unreal. The $191,300 presidential pension is a pittance compared with the paid-speaking circuit, where Bill Clinton has raked in a reported $75 million since leaving the White House. As a gifted orator, Obama could milk this angle for decades. Book deals—another area where he's no slouch—lard on further millions. Building a presidential library and museum will also be a primary focus whenever Obama leaves office. He'll be on hand to meet standing ex-presidential obligations, like attending foreign funerals, and his endorsement—barring a total electoral repudiation--will be the most powerful in the Democratic Party.
As an ex-first lady, Michelle Obama would also find a degree of freedom and have the potential to be a new kind of stateswoman. It might even be her chance to become, for the first time, the more visible Obama. "Would the president see a postpresidency as payback time for his wife, as Bill Clinton has—a time to let her take the lead?" says Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter and author of the forthcoming book The Obamas. "I can absolutely imagine her as a TV personality. It would be a more natural fit for her in many ways than political life."
Which would leave Barack ... a stay-at-home dad? Below, this and other possibilities for a post-White House life.
Nick Summers on Life for Obama Post Presidency