Where Has Barack Obama Been?

Sep 6, 2018
Originally published on September 25, 2018 3:38 pm

Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET Friday

In the 20 months since he left the White House, Barack Obama has been pretty quiet, but that is starting to change.

On Friday, in a speech at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Obama delivered a strong rejoinder to current Republican policies and rhetoric. "The politics of division, of resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party," he said. "This is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for."

"I'm here to deliver a simple message," Obama told the student audience, "which is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it."

He continued: "Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire."

For the first time since he left the White House, Obama publicly called out President Trump by name. The "politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment," Obama said, "did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He's just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years."

On Saturday, Obama will campaign in Southern California with Democratic congressional candidates who are considered good prospects to turn red seats blue in the midterms.

Next Thursday, he'll stump for Ohio gubernatorial hopeful Richard Cordray and other Democrats at a rally in Cleveland, with more campaign events planned for the weeks leading up to the midterm elections.

Until now, Obama had not directly taken on Donald Trump, even as his successor has attacked him personally and dismantled much of his legacy by undoing policies on trade, climate change, health care and more.

Instead, he has been working on his memoir; he and Michelle Obama have announced a deal with Netflix to produce TV series and movies on themes that inspire them; and he's focused on his foundation and planned presidential museum in Chicago.

Behind the scenes, he has offered counsel to a number of Democrats considering a run for president in 2020. But to the distress of many Democrats, Obama has been absent from this season's campaign trail.

"He's really been remarkably absent since leaving office," Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said before his Friday speech.

By mostly staying on the sidelines, Obama is following in the tradition of past presidents, which dictates: Don't interfere with the peaceful transition of power, treat the new president with dignity and respect, and keep quiet.

The problem is that President Trump has upended every norm, Zelizer says, and his actions demand a response.

"These are not normal times," Zelizer says, "and so that metric of what a former president should do, doesn't really work right now."

"Speeches really matter," Zelizer adds, especially "in this moment of a governing crisis under President Trump."

He faults Obama for not having been present on the midterm campaign trail so far. "There needs to be more of a sense of urgency about what's going on," Zelizer says. "The midterm campaigns are about turnout. It's about energy and excitement. And I think as one of the most popular political figures in the country, he can help Democrats generate that kind of excitement to make sure the midterms go as well as they can."

In the few public remarks Obama had made since leaving the White House, he has folded in some lightly veiled criticism.

For example, in his eulogy for the late Sen. John McCain, it was hard to miss Obama's subtext when he chided those who "[traffic] in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage."

Obama added, "It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear."

Similarly, when he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa, this summer, Obama warned of "strongman politics ... a politics of fear and resentment." He went on deplore "the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they're caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more."

In written statements, Obama has condemned the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the border, and he's called abandoning the Iran nuclear deal "a serious mistake."

But to date, he had declined to challenge Trump directly by name.

"He is not going to engage in the daily 24-hour scrum," says Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest friends and advisers. "Let's face it, he could comment all day long every day and it probably still wouldn't be enough to make people feel OK given everything that's going on in the country today."

Jarrett says that of course Obama wishes he had turned the presidential baton over to a "better steward," as she puts it. But, she says, Obama believes that constantly taking Trump on would inevitably turn him into a Republican target and distract attention from the issues.

What's more, Jarrett says, "It's really his job to make sure that [his] voice is not diluted by commenting on every single thing that happens. Is he disturbed about the impact many of these reversals are having on people's lives? Profoundly."

Another close confidant, the Obama Foundation's board chairman Martin Nesbitt, says that Obama is carefully calibrating how he engages. "He understands that his voice can suck a lot of oxygen out of the room," Nesbitt says. "He needs to give space to the next generation of progressive leadership to take the reins of the party and move it along in the right direction."

Obama's low profile up until now is entirely consistent with everything we know about the country's 44th president, according to his biographer David Maraniss.

"Barack Obama's post-presidency is cool the way he has always been cool," he explains.

Also, Maraniss says, it's in Obama's nature to step back.

"As a community organizer, he was always trying to push the people out in front of himself," Maraniss says. "I think that as president he was trying to do that and it didn't always work. And it actually frustrated a lot of people that he wasn't more vocal, and that the party suffered because of that during his eight years as president, even as he was thriving. So here is a chance for him to make up for that."

That's what Obama will be doing as he begins stumping for Democratic candidates.

Taking the long view

Maraniss says the former president has always taken the long view. "This is a real test of his philosophy," Maraniss says, "that the correct will prevail in the end; that 50 years from now, the Trump retrograde presidency will diminish, and the changes that Barack Obama was a small part of ushering in will prevail. I think he still believes that. But it's certainly being put to the test in this moment."

Democratic strategist and former Obama administration official Lynda Tran agrees: "What I would say to folks who are concerned about the fact that they haven't heard from Barack Obama as much as they'd like to, is that this is all part of a larger moral arc, and part of what he envisioned from the very beginning. That it's up to each of us to step forward and do what we think is right."

That core belief — planting the seeds for future change — is at the heart of the Obama Foundation's mission, and its programs to train the next generation of community leaders.

The foundation has selected civic innovators, chosen from around the globe, to be Obama Fellows. There's a separate program to train young leaders in Africa.

The youngest cohort is called the Community Leadership Corps, or CLC, for those ages 18 to 25. They're budding community organizers, just like Barack Obama was, decades ago, on the South Side of Chicago.

At a recent Chicago boot camp, those chosen for the debut CLC class gathered for a weekend of training and workshops. Each participant came with specific community problems they want to help fix: food insecurity. Gentrification and displacement. Neighborhood crime. Poor access to health care.

"To watch them begin their journey of active citizenship around the thing they care about is really inspiring," says the Obama Foundation's CEO David Simas. "It's the beauty of that age, because it has the benefit of a critical eye balanced with a hopeful heart."

One of the Chicago participants is Chanelle Bell, who hopes to increase opportunities for disenfranchised youth in her largely African-American community on the city's South Side. She works with a network of charter schools as a community organizer — a title she doesn't wear lightly.

When that job was first proposed to her, she didn't even know what a community organizer did. "I was like, 'isn't that what President Obama did?'" she recalls. "And I was like, 'Well, I don't know about you, but I am no President Obama! And I do not think that I could be able to do that.' "

But it turns out, she could.

Bell brims with energy and enthusiasm as she talks about the legacy Obama has passed along.

"He started something, and we are just rollin', rollin', rollin', rollin', and rollin'!" she says. "We're getting bigger, we're getting badder and more educated and more empowered. And so when it's our time — and our time is now — people will really, really be able to see the impact that he's had, and how it's going to live on way longer than any of our lifetimes."

The Obama Foundation provides the young organizers with mentors and a small stipend. Simas explains that the program springs from what he calls the defining theme of President Obama's life, "which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

The foundation has already raised more than a quarter of a billion dollars from private donors and plans to raise far more than that.

Most of those funds will go toward building the Obama Presidential Center and museum in Jackson Park, on Chicago's South Side.

Those plans have drawn heated debate in the community: Preservationists are angered by what they see as the destruction of greenspace in a historic park. Others worry about gentrification and want guarantees of affordable housing.

"We will continue to have discussions with them," says Simas, "because frankly that's consistent with the way president and Mrs. Obama would expect us to, as neighbors here on the south side."

If plans are approved, Simas says they hope to break ground next year; the presidential center would open in 2022.

Meantime, Chanelle Bell and the other young people in the Community Leadership Corps aren't waiting. They're taking to heart the president's words from his 2017 farewell address in Chicago, when he exhorted the crowd, "If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing!"

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since he left the White House, Barack Obama has been pretty quiet. And to the distress of some Democrats, he has been absent from the midterm campaign trail. That is until now. He'll appear with congressional candidates this weekend in California, and tomorrow in Illinois, he'll give a speech calling on Americans to reject authoritarian politics. NPR's Melissa Block reports on the challenges of Obama's post-presidency in the age of Trump.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's not just Democratic leaders wondering where Obama's been. Even "Saturday Night Live" got in on the act with a parody lament, "Come Back, Barack."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KENAN THOMPSON: (As character) Maybe you can come back and make a speech. How much would that cost - for real? Oh, no, we definitely can't afford that. Well, you enjoy your retirement, homie.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Come back, Barack.

BLOCK: Behind the scenes, Obama's been writing a memoir. He's offered counsel to a number of Democrats considering a run for president in 2020, and he's focused on his foundation and planned a presidential museum in Chicago. In the few public remarks Obama has made since leaving the White House, he's folded in some lightly veiled criticism. For example, when he eulogized John McCain this past weekend, he chided those who traffic in bombast and insult.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: In phony controversies, in manufactured outrage.

BLOCK: Obama declined our request for an interview. He has in written statements condemned the policy of separating families at the border, and he's called abandoning the Iran nuclear deal a serious mistake. But he hasn't mentioned Trump by name even as his successor is attacking him personally and dismantling much of his legacy, undoing policies on trade, climate change and health care.

JULIAN ZELIZER: He's really been remarkably absent since leaving office.

BLOCK: That's Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. He says by mostly staying on the sidelines, Obama is following in the tradition of past presidents - treat the new president with dignity and respect, and keep quiet. The problem, Zelizer says, is that Trump has upended every norm, and his actions demand a response.

ZELIZER: These are not normal times, and so that metric of what a former president should do doesn't really work right now.

VALERIE JARRETT: Let's face it. He could comment all day long every day, and it probably still wouldn't be enough to make people feel OK given everything that's going on in the country today.

BLOCK: Valerie Jarrett is one of Obama's closest friends and advisers.

JARRETT: It's really his job to make sure that that voice is not diluted by commenting on every single thing that happens. Is he disturbed about the impact many of these reversals are having on people's lives - profoundly.

BLOCK: Jarrett says of course Obama wishes he had turned the presidential baton over to a better steward, as she puts it. But he believes that constantly taking Trump on would inevitably turn him into a Republican target and distract attention from the issues. Another close confidant, Obama Foundation Chairman Marty Nesbitt, says Obama is carefully calibrating how he engages.

MARTY NESBITT: He understands that, you know, his voice can suck a lot of oxygen out of the room and that he needs to give space to the next generation of progressive leadership to take the reins of the party and move it along in the right direction.

BLOCK: Obama's low profile up until now is entirely consistent with everything we know about the country's 44th president, says Obama biographer David Maraniss.

DAVID MARANISS: As a community organizer, he was always trying to push the people out in front of himself. I think that as president he was trying to do that. And it didn't always work. And it actually frustrated a lot of people that he wasn't more vocal and that the party suffered because of that during his eight years as president even as he was thriving. So here's a chance for him to make up for that.

BLOCK: And Obama can start to make up for that on the campaign trail. Maraniss says remember that he has always taken the long view, that long arc of the moral universe that Obama often quotes bending toward justice.

MARANISS: This is a real test of his philosophy, which is that the correct will prevail in the end, that 50 years from now the Trump retrograde presidency will diminish and the changes that Barack Obama was a small part of ushering in will prevail. I think he still believes that. But it's certainly being put to the test in this moment.

BLOCK: That core belief is at the heart of the Obama Foundation's mission. And that foundation is a key part of how Obama is shaping his post-presidency. Tomorrow on the program, we'll visit the foundation in Chicago and its program to train the next generation of community organizers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I said I'm alive.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I'm alive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm awake.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I'm awake.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I'm energized.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I'm energized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "APOLLO'S MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.