The 44th president, after a three-month hiatus relaxing with the rich and famous, spoke last week to students at the University of Chicago, and next Sunday, in what should be a memorable moment, will accept the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award at a Boston dinner commemorating the late president’s 100th birthday.
In the months ahead there will be selective appearances, including a trip to Germany with other foreign trips, some involvement in the political sphere and much attention to building his own foundation and library.
Obama is the most popular politician in America. His elegance and decency are a contrast to what we saw in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. His standing dwarfs that of Democratic congressional and party leaders, and, after the past election, there is pervasive Clinton fatigue. He is the first ex-president since Teddy Roosevelt young enough, vibrant enough and credible enough to help shape the public dialogue.
People who know Obama will say there are important caveats. He will not engage in public feuds with Trump. Presidents always blame their predecessors for problems, but Trump has taken this to a new level with vitriol and lies. Obama associates say he won’t rise to that bait.
He also believes that Democrats need to develop new and younger voices and that he shouldn’t suck up a lot of the political oxygen. (Obama’s failing as president was in party building and advancing younger talent.) He opposed Trump’s Muslim ban earlier this year, and he will speak out on issues that he believes transcend party differences. But he will be very selective.
He can make points against Trump indirectly as he did on immigration in his chat with Chicago students. The Kennedy Library speech affords an opportunity where, through the prism of President Kennedy, he can extol civic engagement and tolerance and the courage to take on tough issues like civil rights and immigration.
Politically, Obama will help his former attorney general, Eric Holder, in a major effort to help Democrats compete in the midterm elections with an eye on redressing redistricting imbalances in congressional and state legislatures.
Like most of his predecessors, he will be much in demand as a fund-raiser and probably will campaign for candidates in important 2018 elections, while staying out of jockeying for the next presidential nomination.
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Potentially he can play a crucial role as a healer between disparate factions, given his unrivaled ability to tamp down the crazier or more divisive elements.
That need has been on display this month after Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned for a liberal Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha. Pro-choice advocates protested that the candidate, Heath Mello, wasn’t trustworthy enough on abortion, and Democratic Party chair Tom Perez indicated there was no place in the party for candidates who weren’t all in for a woman’s right to choose.
In another race, Sanders initially resisted embracing the Democratic candidate in a special Georgia congressional election for being insufficiently progressive. Some moderate and Wall Street Democrats, meanwhile, want to diminish the role that Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren play in the party.
Obama knows that if Democrats rule out an economic progressive for mayor of Omaha because of his abortion record or resist a Southern moderate with a chance to beat a conservative Republican, they will be the minority party for a long time. Likewise, Warren and Sanders are major players in the Democratic Party, and trying to diminish them would drain the anti-Trump grass-roots enthusiasm.
Obama also has long stressed themes of openness and tolerance — read his University of Michigan commencement address seven years ago — relevant today when some left-wingers are trying to prevent right-wing speakers on campuses. He can make this point to young voters, with whom he is particularly popular — 61 percent view him favorably, with only 19 percent unfavorable, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News column.
(Obama is drawing criticism for planning to accept a $400,000 speaking fee from an investment firm to talk about health care. A few paid speeches for this already wealthy man are fine, but he shouldn’t revert to the buck-raking that got the Clintons in political trouble.)
There is little doubt that Barack Obama, if eligible, would have won last November’s election. His influence today is considerable and may well grow the longer Donald Trump is in office.