Barack Obama was six months into his post–White House life when Donald Trump found a new way to grab his attention. It was a Tuesday morning deep in the mid-Atlantic summer, and, feeling a world away from the Pennsylvania Avenue grind, the former president was reading the New York Timeson his iPad.
The previous evening, Trump had visited West Virginia, where he spoke at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree. Addressing a crowd of roughly 40,000, who were expecting the usual talk about citizenship and service, the president uncorked a political diatribe packed with jabs at Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Washington, D.C., “cesspool”; reminders about the importance of saying “Merry Christmas”; and reminiscences of Election Night 2016 and the pundits he embarrassed. “You remember that incredible night with the maps, and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue, and that map was so red it was unbelievable. And they didn’t know what to say,” Trump told the Scouts. They seemed bewildered at first but before long broke into chants of “USA!” Adult observers were openly horrified. Three days later, the Boy Scouts’ leader would apologize for Trump’s speech.
In Washington, where the former president still works and lives with his wife, Michelle, and his younger daughter, Sasha, Obama stewed. Ever since the shocking election, he had resisted condemning his successor directly. Early on, he would muse to senior aides in private about what it meant that the country had chosen Trump, bouncing between writing off the election as a freak accident and considering it a rejection of his own vision of America. In the months after the inauguration, Obama referred publicly to the new president only sparingly — but still more than he expected to. He issued careful statements defending the Affordable Care Act and supporting the Paris climate-change agreement, avoided mentioning Trump by name, and largely let the resistance speak for itself. But the Boy Scouts speech really troubled him. Kids their age are the most impressionable group there is, Obama reminded friends at the time, likening them to sponges. If the president shoves a divisive political argument at them, that’s what they will absorb.
It was a very Barack Obama thing to get agitated about. Throughout his entire political career, he has attached an unusual degree of significance to storytelling, and he has often spoken of the importance of modeling what it means to be a good citizen. He had recently concluded a two-month stretch full of international travel and was just starting to settle into his post-presidency, and that week was a busy one in Washington — Republicans were zeroing in on a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Boy Scouts speech was relatively unimportant (mostly improvised, probably something Trump would forget about within a week), but perhaps it presented an opportunity. One of the most potent tools in Obama’s arsenal, as a retired president, is rhetoric. Even if he no longer enjoyed the bully pulpit, he could, if he wanted, fill the vacuum of moral leadership Trump had created and offer, to not only the Scouts but the entire country, a lesson in civics that no other Democrat is positioned to give.
Where is Obama? It is a question much of the country has been asking over the last two years, sometimes plaintively. “Come back, Barack,” Chance the Rapper sang in a Saturday Night Live sketch. “We all miss him,” Kobe Bryant said, speaking for other athletes. Even former FBI director James Comey admitted to German interviewers this spring that he misses Obama.
Beyond the anguish is, often, simply bafflement: How did the most ubiquitous man in America for eight years virtually disappear? Over the course of his presidency, Obama cast himself as the country’s secular minister as much as its commander-in-chief, someone who understood the moral core of the nation and felt compelled to insist that we live up to it. What explains his near absence from the political stage, where he might argue publicly against the reversals of his policy accomplishments, and also from American life more broadly? What is keeping him from speaking more frequently about the need to protect democratic norms and the rule of law, to be decent people? Where is the man who cried after Sandy Hook and sang in Charleston, who after each mass shooting tried to soothe an outraged nation, who spoke of American values in his travels across the globe? And, tactically, what is behind the relative silence of one of the most popular figures alive just as American politics appears to so many to be on the brink of breaking?
Earlier this month, weeks after news first came out of thousands of immigrant children being held apart from their parents at the border, and after Laura Bush had published an article excoriating her party’s policy, Obama and his team chose to make a rare foray into the news cycle. First, they decided that Michelle should take the lead, and she did so by retweeting Bush’s article approvingly (“Sometimes truth transcends party”). That received a further retweet from Barack, in a bid to keep the conversation about families rather than about politics — as he calculated it would have been had he weighed in directly. Two days later, with the crisis dominating the national news, Obama’s advisers saw an opportunity in World Refugee Day to issue a statement of his own that focused on American values rather than Trump-administration policy. It was an eloquent call for empathy. It was also, to Democrats desperate for him to break post-presidential precedent, the very least he could have done.
Obama’s reticence is more than simply a matter of communications strategy. He has mostly opted out of liberal America’s collective Trump-outrage cycle. Though he reads the Times and other newspapers, he doesn’t follow daily Trump developments on Twitter or watch television news. He is upset by the administration’s actions, and he’s confided to friends that what worries him most is the international order, the standing of the office of the presidency, the erosion of democratic norms, and the struggles of people who are suddenly unsure of their immigration status or the future of their health-care coverage. Still, in conversations with political allies, Obama insists that today’s domestic mess is a blip on the long arc of history and argues that his own work must be focused on progress over time — specifically on empowering a new generation of leaders. He says his legacy is not what concerns him. (“Michelle and I are fine,” he tells those who ask about it.) And while he often says he misses the day-to-day work of fixing people’s problems, he has even less patience for day-to-day politics than he did as president.W