What does Barack Obama want? To ask the question is both to wonder how one of the world’s most influential people chooses to dedicate his time and to consider to what ends he thinks it is best put to use.
As Nathan Robinson and I argued a little more than two years ago, a post-presidency offers us the ideal heuristic for doing exactly that. In office, or so it has often been suggested, Obama’s fiery progressive spirit was endlessly stifled by a combination of events, GOP obstruction, and the inherent conservatism of the American legislative process. Having left such constraints behind, many believed, post-2016 Obama would now be free to do just about anything he wanted — meaning that the former president’s real self could finally surface from beneath the depths of institutional necessity under which it had hitherto been submerged.
This prediction turned out to be true enough, just not in the way many Obama partisans assumed.
Equipped with fame, wealth, and a vast reservoir of residual goodwill Obama now has more power to do good in an hour than most of us do in a lifetime. The demands of etiquette and propriety notwithstanding, he no longer has intransigent Blue Dog senators to appease, donors to placate, or personal electoral considerations to keep him up at night. When he speaks or acts, we can be reasonably certain he does so out of sincere choice and that the substance of his words and actions reflect the real Barack Obama and how he honestly sees the world.
It therefore tells us a great deal that, given the latitude, resources, and moral authority with which to influence events, Obama has spent his post-presidency cozying up to the global elite and delivering vapid speeches to corporate interests in exchange for unthinkable sums of money.
Though often remaining out of the spotlight, he has periodically appeared next to various CEOs at events whose descriptions might be read as cutting satire targeting the hollowness of business culture if they weren’t all-too real. As the world teeters on the brink of ecological disaster, he recently cited an increase in America’s output of oil under his administration as a laudable achievement.
When Obama has spoken about or intervened in politics, it’s most often been to bolster the neoliberal center-right or attack and undermine the Left. Having emerged from seclusion to endorse the likes of Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, Obama also rang up Britain’s austerity-loving Conservative prime minister Theresa May on election night in 2017 to offer reassurance and trash the Labour Party’s electoral prospects. Only last week, while denouncing the Democratic Party’s “activist wing,” the former president who had once introduced himself to the nation as a progressive, community-minded outsider inveighed against those pushing for a more ambitious direction — contemptuously instructing a group of wealthy donors not to concern themselves too-much with the irrational zealotry of “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds.”
Adding to this trail of words and actions since 2016, a lengthy report just published by Politico offers us further insight into both Obama’s calculations since leaving office and his broader view of politics. Portraying the former president as someone drawn somewhat unwillingly back into the political fray by events, the piece is strewn with suggestive nuggets on subjects ranging from Donald Trump to his opinions about various hopefuls running for the Democratic nomination.
We learn, for example, that Obama at one time hoped to enjoy something akin to a normal relationship with his successor, and that the former president apparently thinks little of Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg but is a fan of Montana Governor Steve Bullock. We also learn that in 2015 he was troubled by the prospect of a presidential run by Elizabeth Warren on the grounds that her anti-Wall Street message would represent a repudiation of his legacy.
Unsurprisingly, the passage that has drawn the most attention concerns Obama’s allegedly expressed intention to intervene in the primary process in the event that a certain senator from Vermont gets anywhere near the Democratic nomination:
Publicly, [Obama] has been clear that he won’t intervene in the primary for or against a candidate, unless he believed there was some egregious attack. “I can’t even imagine with this field how bad it would have to be for him to say something,” said a close adviser. Instead, he sees his role as providing guardrails to keep the process from getting too ugly and to unite the party when the nominee is clear. There is one potential exception: Back when Sanders seemed like more of a threat than he does now, Obama said privately that if Bernie were running away with the nomination, Obama would speak up to stop him.”
While certainly revealing in its confirmation of Obama’s hostility towards the left, the piece’s most striking passage, at least on this score, comes several paragraphs later as journalist Ryan Lizza places the former president’s various maneuvers in context vis-a-vis the current political climate and the 2020 presidential election:
Recently he has started to speak out publicly, offering Democrats, in two appearances, a unified Obama theory of how they can win—and how they can stave off the same kind of forces that took over the GOP.
The two appearances in question refer to Obama’s recent statements against his own party’s “activist wing” and a still more revealing July 2018 address given in Johannesburg, described by Lizza as follows:
In that speech, while cataloging the litany of authoritarian trends and making obvious references to the ways that he believes Trump has debased American politics, nonetheless his prescription was defined by anti-radicalism. He decried equally “unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism” and “old-style command-and-control socialism” in favor of traditional American liberalism, “an inclusive market-based system.” In case he wasn’t clear that populist demagoguery can come from either ideological direction, he added, “So those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable.”
Strikingly, such a statement tells us that in a world of resurgent fascism and looming ecological collapse America’s forty-fourth president still believes the solution is to embrace further centrist moderation and douse rather than channel popular discontent.
More revealing, though, is what it tells us about Obama’s attitude towards the populist left. The phrase “stave off the same kind of forces that took over the GOP” belongs to Lizza rather than the former president himself, but it seems reasonable to conclude given Obama’s words and actions that he views the Trumpian right and the populist left in roughly similar terms.
If anything, Politico’s investigation suggests he’s been more concerned with opposing the latter since leaving the White House. As TrueAnon’s Liz Franczak aptly put it: “Obama went on like 200 billionaire yacht cruises and finalized his Netflix deal when Trump became president, but even a whiff of Sanders gaining momentum and he’s running to the dais.”
Now more than ever liberals, partisan Democrats, and progressives of every kind are overdue for a reckoning with Barack Obama, his legacy, and whatever residual feelings still linger from the euphoria of 2008. To his credit, Obama has always been fairly open about the conservative outlook that grounds his politics — even in the halcyon days of Yes We Can, he was already taking care to distance himself from radicalism and align himself with Reaganism.
As for that initial question of what Obama wants, the answer is that he’s told anyone willing to listen from the very beginning. Since 2016, his major concern has been to preserve a legacy whose progressive bona fides are increasingly threatened by the genuine radicalism of those to his left – and to use the vast power and influence at his disposal to stand in their way.