USA Politics

Obama speech signals a post-presidency like no other

New thinking

President Obama exhorted Americans to get involved if they're frustrated by politics. It seems that he will remain involved, perhaps to an unprecedented degree. 

President Obama delivers his farewell address in Chicago Tuesday.  
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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“Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can,” President Obama declared in wrapping up his farewell speech to the nation Tuesday night.

In three short assertions, Mr. Obama recalled his original, hopeful quest for the presidency, touted his record of eight years in the Oval Office, and then laid down his charge to the nation: Stay at it.

It is Obama’s call for continued action that may be of most consequence. Inequality, racial divisions, the decline of fact-based consensus and faith in public institutions all pose a threat to democracy, he warned, in urging Americans to accept “the responsibility of citizenship.”

“If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” said Obama in a bittersweet farewell address before a crowd of 18,000 in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

But even as he signaled a return to his roots as a community organizer, Obama’s post-presidency promises to be much more than that. Obama is young and healthy, and clearly eager to vindicate the election loss of his would-be political heir, Hillary Clinton. The surprise election of Donald Trump, who intends to dismantle much of Obama’s legacy, has by many accounts lit a fire under the soon-to-be ex-president. And while Obama has said he will honor the tradition of former presidents in refraining from critiquing his successor publicly, he has also implied that he will not stay silent if he perceives a threat to core American values.

The news that broke right before Obama spoke suggested just such a crisis: an explosive but unsubstantiated report that Russia held damaging personal information about President-elect Trump that could be used to compromise him. 

Obama didn’t mention the report in his remarks, but took a swipe at Russia (and China) in warning against taking American democracy for granted. “Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world – unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors,” he said.

Obama's to-do list

Obama’s post-presidency appears set to follow multiple strands. He is doubling down on his commitment to Organizing for America, the outside group that sprang from his presidential campaigns and focused on supporting his agenda while he was in office. Now the group is being retooled to train activists and recruit Democratic candidates, according to Politico. 

On Tuesday night, Obama referenced another post-presidential goal: the reshaping of congressional districts, due after the 2020 census.  

“When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes,” he said.

Obama will work on redistricting with former Attorney General Eric Holder, who chairs a new outfit called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Mr. Holder has said the group will invest in races for governor, state legislature, and other down-ballot offices.

Unspoken in Obama’s remarks is the decline of the Democratic Party during his tenure. The party has lost roughly 1,000 state legislative seats, control of both houses of Congress, numerous governorships, and now the presidency. Democrats control the governor’s chair and both legislative chambers in only six states.

Like most ex-presidents in the modern era, Obama will set about writing a memoir as soon as he leaves office. His initiative aimed at helping young men of color avoid the school-to-prison pipeline, known as My Brother’s Keeper, will be another focus, as will his Chicago-based presidential library and foundation.

Behind the scenes

But Obama will be based in Washington for the next two and a half years, while his younger daughter finishes high school, making him the first president since Woodrow Wilson to remain in the capital after leaving office. Obama’s close proximity to his successor – he and his family have rented a house less than three miles from the White House – will only tempt involvement as an informal Democratic adviser.

“I would not be surprised if he maintains a really important behind-the-scenes role in helping craft Democratic strategy,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “The question is, in a media-saturated environment, whether he can keep those types of maneuverings under wraps. But I can see him privately being called upon to provide strategic support, giving advice to people, providing institutional memory.”

But in his remarks Tuesday night, Obama framed his exhortations on civic engagement in a broad, nonpartisan way.

“Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours,” Obama said. “But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

In his call for national unity, Obama adopted a hopeful tone, as he called for Americans to reengage in the hard work of forming a more perfect union.

“If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself,” he said to the cheers of the crowd at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

“Show up, dive in, stay at it,” Obama continued.

“Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you'll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.”

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