Barack is back
Former President Barack Obama returned to the White House Tuesday for the first time since leaving office. He was there to commemorate the 12th anniversary of his Affordable Care Act and help President Biden push for further health care reform.
"Thank you, Vice President Biden," Obama said as he stepped up to the podium. It was a joke, one Obama took great pains to downplay, but it accurately reflected the dynamic. Everyone in the room promptly forgot about the most powerful man in the world. Videos show Biden shuffling awkwardly around the room while murmurations of functionaries swirled around Obama. At one point, Biden even placed his hand on Obama's shoulder and said "Barack." Obama didn't even glance at him.
All the energy in the room emanated from and returned to a man whose public life is supposedly over. It shouldn't have to be. Obama should run for Senate.
He's only 60, after all. He's got at least two terms in him. Maybe three. In any blue state, Obama would clear the primary field and win the general in a landslide, and it just so happens that he owns a home in Massachusetts. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are both in their 70s.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Old fuddy-duddies like Ronald Reagan (who left office at the age of 77) have every right to retire at the end of their presidencies. Go fishing and spend time with the grandkids.
Obama, on the other hand, was only 55 when his second term ended. Bill Clinton was only 54, and George W. Bush only 62. The presidency is a grueling job. Eight years in office lined Obama's face and turned his hair gray, and he certainly earned a few years of leisure. But he has more to offer. So did Bush in 2009. So did Clinton in 2000. Whatever you think of them as human beings or political leaders, these are men of action. The post-presidential lives they're expected to lead are unworthy of them, especially when those long descents to the grave could stretch on for decades.
The last several presidents — with the exception of Trump, who prefers to brood like Megatron in his gilded lair — have all pursued the same combination of writing memoirs, giving paid speeches, dabbling in political kingmaking, and engaging in the sort of philanthropy one suspects is more about preserving a place in the upper echelons than serving the poor. Obama's Netflix deal is a departure from this pattern, but not a significant one. Jimmy Carter, who's done real work in diplomacy and charity, is a glaring exception.
This lingering in the limelight isn't good for former presidents, and it robs us of everything they might still contribute. If they want to retire, fine. But if they want to do something, let's give them something real to do.
Precedents for presidents
What should that "something" be? History provides a number of options. Grover Cleveland played the stock market. James Madison helped revise the Virginia state constitution and served as president of the American Colonization Society, which helped former slaves settle in Liberia. John Adams, like Washington before him, returned to his farm.
The more vigorous former commanders-in-chief could imitate Theodore Roosevelt, who — after failing to win a third term — undertook a grueling expedition to the South American jungle.
Those who aren't quite done with public life are also in good company. In the first century of the republic, three former presidents were elected to public office. One-term president John Quincy Adams won nine terms in the House of Representatives. Six years after leaving the Oval Office, Andrew Johnson was elected as a senator from Tennessee, though he died a few months after taking office. John Tyler's neighbors — all Whigs who considered his presidency a disaster — mockingly elected the former president as the local overseer of roads, a position he took up with the utmost seriousness. Tyler also served briefly in the Confederate Congress.
Princeps or Augustus?
Gaius Octavius, Julius Caesar's adopted heir and the first Roman emperor, held two separate and contradictory titles: Augustus, meaning "illustrious one," and Princeps Civitatis, meaning "first citizen." The first title presented him as an almost godlike figure, standing far above mere mortals. The second gave the opposite impression. "A monarch? Who, me? No way! I'm a citizen, just like you!"
In the United States, we seem torn between the two. We expect our presidents to kiss babies and eat hot dogs, limit them to two terms in office, and hedge them about with legislative, judicial, and bureaucratic checks. And yet, the American presidency still bears on its brow the recognizable imprint of the crown. This was especially clear in the beginning. Alexander Hamilton proposed that the president should hold office for life, John Adams suggested calling the chief executive "His Elected Highness," and George Washington personally led the army dispatched to crush the Whiskey Rebellion.
Today, the pomp of the Inauguration and the State of the Union seem far more appropriate to Elizabeth II than to Boris Johnson, who took office following a simple invitation from the queen and must regularly wrangle with lowly MPs. Recent British prime ministers Gordon Brown and Theresa May both returned to the back benches of Parliament after losing the premiership. It's difficult to imagine a modern president doing the same. Washington's famous imitation of Cincinnatus in stepping away from public life did much to cast the president as princeps. Today, ironically, that same precedent — albeit with a definition of "private life" more suited to the age of air travel and the internet — turns our former chief executives into semi-deified figures considered too pure to do anything but kill time as members of the jet-setting aristocracy.
If the president is some sort of sacramental monarch, who after being anointed with the inaugural oil remains forever after a higher sort of being, then let's acknowledge that. Repeal the term limits and give him a scepter to carry. Keep making scenes like the one we saw at the White House on Tuesday.
But if the president truly is just the first citizen, a public servant who served for a time in a particular capacity, then let's treat him or her that way. It should be considered perfectly normal for former presidents to sit on corporate boards, go into private law practice, run for Senate or governor, or accept an appointment as ambassador. The only possible argument against these activities would be that the former president's lingering aura of majesty would somehow overawe his business partners or opposing counsel or fellow lawmakers or whatever.
I'm sorry. I thought this was a republic. I thought we didn't believe in such things.