Photo courtesy of Kevin Burkett / Flickr

The Politics of an Ex-President

At the age of 56, Barack Obama is one of the youngest presidents in history to leave office. Despite a graying head of hair, he’s energetic, as articulate as ever, and (if you’ve been keeping up with the tabloids) has taken an interest in kitesurfing.

It’s traditional for former presidents to take a lengthy vacation after leaving office, and the Obamas did just that: white water rafting, sunbathing in French Polynesia, yachting with Tom Hanks—the usual.

Both Michelle and Barack are reportedly working on memoirs and have purchased a mansion in D.C.

Yet the public eye naturally remains trained on Obama’s political activity—or this time, the lack thereof. Prominent individuals across the globe, from politicians to athletes to celebrities, have broadcasted their displeasure for the current administration to all who could bear to listen. Amid the firestorm of criticism, Mr. Obama’s Twitter account has remained rather tame.

Tweets like, “I’m most proud to be Sasha and Malia’s dad...”, "Healthcare is about more than politics…”, or “Forever grateful for the service and sacrifice of all who fought to protect our freedoms” stand in contrast to the charged rhetoric flying back and forth on social media. Even when President Trump accused his predecessor of wiretapping, Obama remained deafeningly silent.

Obama penned two press releases that contained critiques of the Trump administration, on the topics of climate change and immigration; but even these were restrained and carefully worded. “Even in the absence of American leadership; even as this Administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up,” stated the most charged segment of Mr. Obama’s release on the Trump administration’s decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement.

Many have urged Obama back into the fray—encouraging more statements like this, only harsher. As Trump aims to tear down much of the Obama legacy, many have expressed their desire for Obama to turn up the heat and lash back. After all, the Democrats are lacking a unifying figure. But the right path is far from clear.

Traditionally, former presidents have stepped back from confrontational politics and refrained from criticizing their successor. In a holistic view of democracy, this tradition makes perfect sense; if the former governor continues to attack the current one, power may never transition smoothly. Predecessors must accept the will of the electorate; they cannot, in any way, dispute their successor's claim to power.

Perhaps, further, the former president sees strategic value in silence. “When they go low, we go high,” (Michelle Obama’s words) became a rallying cry for the Democrats. Perhaps Barack Obama hopes to let the actions of his presidency, as they compare to Trump’s, speak for themselves—maybe he sees verbal restraint, especially in comparison to the fiery language of Trump, as a weapon.

But if we’re going to see Obama take a political stand, it’s probably coming soon. As the Trump administration continues to throw barbs at Obama and reverse the former president’s executive actions, Obama may come to believe that the significance of the moment requires confrontation and criticism. On July 13, Obama is scheduled to speak at a high profile Democratic fundraiser in Washington, D.C., where many expect more fervent anti-Trump language.

Regardless, the former president faces a dilemma going forward: respect tradition by avoiding confrontation, or defend his legacy by critiquing the Trump administration.