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How Obama blew his retirement

His eloquence on the campaign trail only underlines his absence for most of every election cycle.
Image: Former President Barack Obama.
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a rally to support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Mandela Barnes in Milwaukee, Wis., on Oct. 29.Scott Olson / Getty Images

It’s the last couple weeks before an election, and that means that Barack Obama is going viral. Clips of his appearances at rallies for Democratic candidates are popping up all over social media. Here’s him attacking Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., over his promises that he is going to slash Social Security:

I’ve criticized Obama for basically my entire career in journalism (and here I would quibble with his moral framework). But it’s undeniable that he’s the Democratic Party’s best orator by a country mile. Nobody else even comes close — especially not the current leadership.

But Obama’s eloquence only underlines his absence during the other 102 weeks of an election cycle. Sure, he has a tweet or interview here, an endorsement or donation there. But, aside from blocking Bernie Sanders from a presidential nomination, otherwise he seems to be enjoying his life as a rich celebrity — producing Netflix documentaries, partying with oligarchs, building his immense presidential library, or hanging out at his huge mansion. If Obama really cared about the political future of his party, not to mention American democracy itself, he’d be a lot more present on the political stage.

Charisma and popularity are useless if they’re not consistently present in the political arena.

There have always been two sides to Obama: the magnificent political campaigner, and the milquetoast officeholder. He broke through in national politics with a superb speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and parlayed that into defeating a heavily favored opponent to win the party’s nomination four years later. He obliterated John McCain in the general election with a radically optimistic message that inspired millions of young people. (I got my own political start knocking on doors for the Obama campaign that year.)

But once in office, Obama pivoted hard to the center. He rejected sweeping New Deal-style reforms, shut down his enormous organizing machine, and appointed one of the architects of Bush’s TARP bailout as Treasury secretary. After defeating Hillary Clinton in part because he opposed the Iraq invasion and she did not, Obama put her in charge of foreign policy at the State Department. He pursued a half-sized economic stimulus and a very moderate health care reform.

The timid stimulus helped keep the economy in the toilet through Election Day 2010, which fueled the backlash created by the first Black president. As Alex Pareene writes, “the complete and inarguable disaster of the Bush administration … and his abrupt replacement by a black man, caused a national nervous breakdown” in the conservative movement. That took the form of the Tea Party, a forerunner of the derangement and extremism that would culminate in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Two years later, with his presidency on the line, Obama rediscovered his political machete. He ran a ferociously populist campaign against Mitt Romney, savaging him for his previous career as a Wall Street buccaneer who bled companies dry for a quick profit. Obama’s criticism of big finance got so heated that Democrats like Cory Booker, who are heavily dependent on the industry, tried to make him stop. Obama refused, and won convincingly.

It may seem presumptuous to be asking a former president to get back in the political arena. But high political office is a public trust, and they don’t come higher than the presidency.

The fact that Obama won re-election easily after the Tea Party backlash demonstrates that the anger and insanity that his identity whips up on the right pales next to his charisma and popularity — if they’re put to good use. A fair number of Americans saw the first Black president and went completely nuts, but a larger number have always liked and respected him. Had he been able to run again in 2016, there is little doubt he would have won handily. Trump was the most unpopular nominee in the history of polling; he could only defeat Hillary Clinton because she was the second-most unpopular (together with how the Electoral College allows popular vote losers to win).

But charisma and popularity are useless if they’re not consistently present in the political arena. Conservative pollster Frank Luntz emphasizes that the single most important quality of political messaging is repetition. Messaging and oratory are Obama’s greatest strength; what’s missing is regularity. His speeches are great, but they fade from public view after a day or two. More, please.

This doesn’t mean Obama needs to be touring the country holding rallies every day of the week. Even a simple weekly podcast would check at least some of the needed boxes. Steve Bannon was a major organizer of the Jan. 6 putsch through little more than a podcast. Obama did do a show with Bruce Springsteen last year, but it wrapped up after eight dull, over-produced episodes. You don’t need elaborate production values or prepared scripts to get it done — in fact, too much preparation can sound stilted and ruin the mood. “Obama shoots the breeze with other Democrats” would take a couple hours of work a week, keep his message on the boil, and probably be a massive hit.

It may seem presumptuous to be asking a former president to get back in the political arena. But high political office is a public trust, and they don’t come higher than the presidency. Obama is rich and famous because of the millions of Americans who voted for him. He owes it to the country to at least keep one toe in the political waters.

Consider John Quincy Adams, who was president from 1824 to 1828 before losing to Andrew Jackson (a notable precursor of Trumpism, as it happens). Adams’s presidency had been a flop, as he struggled to pass his bold ideas through Congress. But instead of giving up after leaving the White House, he ran for Congress and represented Massachusetts in the House for two decades. There, he doggedly fought slavery until almost literally his dying breath: He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1848 while the House was in session, and died two days later, still in the Capitol.

Next to Adams’ example it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for Obama to clock in more than for a couple weeks every two years — especially given the parlous state of our national institutions. His successor as president literally attempted to overthrow the government by force and install himself as dictator-for-life. That man is going to try again in 2024. No American who cares about democracy can stay on the sidelines.