The Far From On-Fire Return of No-Drama Obama

Yes, the former president needs to pick his spots carefully. But that means that he needs to start taking some shots.


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Well, if you were thinking that Barack Obama was going to come out in his first public post-presidential appearance Monday and start throwing partisan haymakers, you were mistaken.

What was billed—or at least described as, in the account I read Monday morning—a speech encouraging activism and political engagement among young people didn’t end up being even that. All he did was talk for about three minutes about his days as a community organizer on the same South Side of Chicago where the event was held (“I am the first to acknowledge that I did not set the world on fire”), and led a pretty earnest and boring panel discussion with six or so of the kind of engaged young people who at age 17 have resumes three times the length of mine today.

CNN tried gamely to stay with it for the full noon hour, but the network cut away at 12:53; just couldn’t make it. Then a little panel discussion ensued in which Zerlina Maxwell and Amy Walter both noted that there was a small irony in Obama making this his first choice for a public reappearance because it’s not exactly like he, as president, “set the world on fire” recruiting young Democrats. Both also noted, however, that that isn’t really a president’s job. And they’re right. It’s the party’s job.

In any case, it was an intentionally snoozy reemergence, one suspects. A little reminder to liberals looking for him to dive back into the deep end of the pool that he will do no such thing. And unlike most liberals I think that can be defended, to a point. Ex-presidents should stay above the fray, for a while. How would liberals have reacted if George W. Bush had been flinging acid at Obama in the first months of his presidency?

In addition, it’s kind of his time to get off the stage and let others grab for the brass ring. The year after a party loses the White House is the most Siberian year there is for a political party—dispirited, no power, no natural leader, out in the wilderness. Events will force a new leader to emerge. The ex-president should stay out of the way of that process.

The riposte to all that is that Obama, and Bush and Clinton and Bush Sr. and Reagan and so on, were all within the bounds of the normal, while Trump is a unique danger. That’s certainly true. But I still think Obama ought to hold his fire for the big things that veritably demand a response.

There remains the question of what he’s going to do with himself. He said at this event that he’s going to devote time to preparing the next generation of leadership yadda yadda. And we know he’s doing his anti-gerrymandering project with Eric Holder. Anything else?

There was this rumor kicking around at the end of last year that he wanted to start a media company. He apparently discussed it with aides, and even maybe (hence the “rumor” part) with Mark Zuckerberg.

He did talk a bit again at Monday’s event about media fragmentation, which he’s discussed a lot. So if Obama were going to start a media company, he’d presumably want to try to transcend said fragmentation.

But I don’t know what would make him think that he could. Exactly which conservatives are going to watch Obama TV? If he did attempt such a venture, there’d be heavily funded right-wing Obama TV monitoring groups ready to start watching for signs of secret Kenyanism and pressuring sponsors before it even went on the air.

It’s the same old problem really. Obama wanted to transcend partisanship as president and came into office actually thinking that he could, to some extent. It took him about five years to learn that the Republicans weren’t going to permit that under any circumstances, at which point he finally started doing some executive orders and going around Congress. Then came the election, in which he was even-handed to a fault, at least when it came to the Russia stuff. And I understood the transition stuff, even as most other liberals complained he was showing Trump too much respect. Outgoing presidents take that peaceful transfer-of-power thing seriously.

But now? As I said, he should pick his shots carefully. But picking shots means that you affirmatively take some. His America needs him to.