Obama won’t speak directly about the Democratic Party, the midterm elections or the 2020 campaign. That will come in the fall, when he resumes doing Democratic fundraising.
Returning to the city where his famous Democratic convention speech launched him into the presidency, Obama — who will accept the Profiles in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library — will focus on civic engagement, especially among young people, which is a focus of his fledgling foundation.
But if people hear a political message, he's just fine with that, too. He'll be talking about more engagement in a non-partisan way, but the more people who get involved, he believes, the better that will happen to be for Democrats.
“He is a big believer in democracy, and a big believer in people. Clearly this is not the option he wanted,” said Arne Duncan, Obama’s longtime friend and former education secretary, who described the former president’s thinking as, “People will prevail.”
While Obama also intends to play a more active role in politics than many former presidents, he is insistent on not being the leader of the opposition. He feels he's done. And he feels it wouldn't work, anyway.
“It is not in anyone’s interest for President Obama to become the face of the resistance,” said Eric Schultz, a former White House aide who’s now a senior adviser. “When the former president speaks, he consumes a lot of the oxygen — and can suppress the next generation of leaders from rising.”
Though Obama has been expressing big ambitions for his foundation, the scope of his options, along with the expectation that he has decades of political or philanthropic activity ahead of him (at 55, he’s young for a former president), have him moving slowly in putting the pieces in place.
“The platform of the post-presidency is a new instrument, and it’s like, ‘How do you play it?’" said Marty Nesbitt, Obama's best friend and foundation chairman. "There’ll be some learning. But we know what kind of music we want to make.”
The absence of established focuses so far has meant a start-from-scratch approach to a foundation that really got underway only after Obama left the White House. It is not expected to announce its first set of programs until the late summer or early fall, and that also has complicated its fundraising efforts. The lack of a set mission means that so far the former president and his aides have been turning to the most reliable Obama donors, ones who'd gladly write a check to him no matter what.
Perhaps the biggest complicating factor for the former president is the current president. Trump has already forced Obama and his aides into hours of discussions about how to respond to his attacks, and led them to scrap plans for public appearances out of concern they’d be taken as picking fights with the president.
The former and current president haven’t spoken since the inauguration — Obama was in the air to California when Trump called to thank him for the traditional letter presidents leave behind in the Oval Office, and he never returned the call. (Obama’s staff did, and Trump said he didn’t want to bother Obama on vacation, so they never connected.) Neither has dialed the other since.
But Trump can’t stop talking about Obama, and that means Obama hasn't been able to stop talking about Trump.
His usual response to news about Trump, according to people who've spoken with him, varies from a sort of "why is anyone surprised?" stoicism, given who the current president is, to the sad frustration that one described as like watching a business he’d built for eight years being slowly ripped down — all wrapped in an insistence that the rejection of his approach to politics which Trump represents can’t and won’t last.
Obama has gotten directly involved in some of the pushback, instructing staff to make clear Trump’s wiretapping accusation is false, despite a personal reaction that’s been described as mostly an eye-roll. Trump’s attacks on Susan Rice enraged and engaged him more, because he gets defensive about friends under fire and because she was shaken to have been targeted.
Despite officially staying out of the fray, Obama is tracking issues like the Obamacare repeal fight, and has continued conversations like hosting CNN’s Fareed Zakaria for lunch at his office last week with former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes to talk foreign and domestic policy.
Meanwhile, he’s expected to start fundraising for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and Democratic National Committee by the fall. He met in late April with former Attorney General Eric Holder, a friend whom he persuaded to chair the NDRC and to commit to help recruit candidates as they try to consolidate efforts races to tackle gerrymandering around state legislative races that has put Democrats at a disadvantage.
“I’m proud to work with President Obama,” Holder said. “We have a big task ahead.”
Obama and his staff are weighing possible campaign stops as well, particularly if another friend, former Rep. Tom Perriello, wins the Democratic nomination in the Virginia governor’s race — but other stops and endorsements are possible as well.
"If he can help to train, and nurture, that’s a big deal. This is not just about the president. It’s about our 50 governors. It’s about our mayors," Duncan said.
And the international demand for him remains: later in the month, he’ll appear with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin ahead of her own re-election campaign in the fall, and on Thursday released a web video officially endorsing French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.
“I’m not planning to get involved in many elections now that I don’t have to run for office again but the French election is very important to the future of France and the values we care so much about,” Obama said.
After eight years in the White House, Obama feels that he’s earned his retirement, according to those closest to him. He’s completely unapologetic about making high-paid speeches around the country and the world — some of which he'll do in conjunction with public events in Europe later in the month — and also just hitting the links and hanging out on more exotic vacations with celebrity friends. Writing his book is a higher a priority to him than spending another minute thinking about the Democratic National Committee, despite the work he did to persuade Tom Perez to run for chair and then to lobby DNC members to make it happen.
He's also looking for more one-off opportunities to elevate efforts and conversations already underway, like the two hours he spent with at-risk young men in Chicago the day before the event at the University of Chicago talking youth civic engagement with six students, in his official public post-presidential-debut.
Most of his days, Obama still spends filtering through his options — sometimes through long conversations, but also examining some of the more than 200,000 submissions that came in response of a video he put out an hour before leaving office, asking for public suggestions of what the foundation should do.
“Running for president is really hard, but that’s one thing. He can literally do whatever he wants in the world right now. It’s a million things coming at him,” said Duncan, who hosted him at the event with the young men and said he could see Obama and the men there were all deeply moved. “It’s not like this is a life plan. It’ll be something that evolves.”
It's a cloud of options now, people working with Obama say, but they insist all the partisan and nonpartisan activity and everything else will eventually gel and make sense.
"Over time, I think people will see how all this stuff comes together," Nesbitt said. “He views it as all one continuum. His work continues, just on a different platform.”
Author: Edward-Isaac Dovere