The Long View

Outlining His Post-Presidency

With prospects for major legislation nonexistent, Obama is looking to plant seeds that he hopes his successors can cultivate.

President Obama spent much of his first term fending off criticism that he hadn’t done enough for the black community, and that he wasn’t paying enough attention to Africa, where his father was born and where expectations soared after his election. In his second term, he’s making up for lost time. Earlier this year, he launched his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative aimed at boosting opportunities for boys and young men of color, and this week, he hosted 50 heads of state from Africa for a first ever U.S-Africa Summit aimed at building stronger ties with a continent where six of the 10 fastest growing economies are located.

Three of the four former living presidents were in Washington to participate in various summit events, demonstrating, amazingly enough, that Obama may have to elbow his way into the Africa Club. Jimmy Carter has worked tirelessly to eradicate guinea worm disease; George W. Bush instituted the wildly popular PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief); and Bill Clinton is often in Africa, promoting a range of projects from HIV prevention to reforestation through his global initiative.

“What Obama is doing fits under the headline, ‘Despite the commitment of previous presidents, lots of work remains to be done to create a healthier economic relationship’,” says William Galston of the Brookings Institution. He notes that unlike the initiatives of his predecessors, which are largely humanitarian, Obama is carving out a niche for himself as “the proponent for and advocate for a new kind of economic relationship in the developing world.”

And like “My Brother’s Keeper,” Africa is a long-range project that offers a window into the kinds of issues that speak to Obama personally and will shape his post-presidency.

“My Brother’s Keeper” is modeled after First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which treats obesity among children as a serious health challenge. Key to the success of ensuring that such programs endure beyond Obama’s presidency is involving corporate America in public-private partnerships. With two years to go in Obama’s term, there is some unease over his prematurely easing into his post-presidency. “It doesn’t mean he intends to do nothing,” says Galston, “but it’s pretty well known he’s about given up on Congress.”

Obama has begun talking almost wistfully about the longer term, and hoping his influence, his vision, will germinate the seeds for his successors to cultivate with a stronger hand and/or a kinder, gentler Congress. “Everything he does now is geared to this idea that whatever initiatives he puts in place are going to come to greater fruition after he leaves office, and he will be remembered as the one who put them in motion,” says historian Robert Dallek.

Should Hillary Clinton become the next president, it’s quite logical that she or any Democrat for that matter would carry forward much of Obama’s unfinished agenda. A GOP that lost three in a row might be chastened enough to cooperate, at least sometimes. Then again, if a Republican wins the presidency in ’16, Obama will take the heat for the loss.

Obama has long argued that Republican obstructionism is to blame for the current paralysis in government. Congress’ performance, leaving town for five weeks without providing funds or policy guidance to deal with the immigration crisis at the border, serves to vindicate Obama’s view. “All he gets from Congress is negativism and carping,” says Dallek. “I think in a sense this deadlock in Congress gives him a greater sense of independence, of freedom to try to take initiatives that will have some progressive, instructive impact.”

Dallek is among a small group of historians invited to the White House on an occasional basis to meet with Obama. He recalls at one point talking to Obama about the Tea Party and its anti-government rhetoric: “I called it the politics of resentment, and he said, ‘Bob, I think you’re right, there’s something subterranean about the way these people process things’.”

“We didn’t talk about race,” Dallek told the Daily Beast, “but I took it as an expression of feeling on his part that race is part of the resentment, resentment of the fact that they feel they’re being elbowed aside, not just by blacks, but by Hispanics, and Asians too.” Asians voted for Obama in a higher percentage even than Hispanics, Dallek notes, adding, “Race is never very far from the American experience.”

Sensitive to the underlying dynamics of his election, Obama steered clear in his first term of anything overt that might stir those subterranean emotions. But now time is winding down, and he appears more willing to take risks. This could manifest itself in the executive action he has promised at summer’s end to clarify the immigration status of tens of thousands and perhaps millions of immigrants, or in the tax issues that allow American corporations to shift their address overseas and stick taxpayers with the lost revenue.

Immigration reform activists would like to see Obama as the Great Emancipator of the 21st century, following in Lincoln’s footsteps. “He has to observe reasonably clear constitutional boundaries and statutory authority, and not hand a sword to his adversaries,” cautions Galston. Whatever action Obama takes, he will get pushback from Republicans. As a constitutional lawyer, he must think he is on solid ground and has no choice but to act on his own or let the rest of his presidency fritter away.

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Obama’s legacy as the nation’s first elected black president is ensured, and he has now put programs in place to carry that identity forward. But in the two years he has remaining, and with his leadership and effectiveness under assault, time is getting short to build the legacy he wants.