It has been over three years since he left the throne. But through the first half of 2019, every potential candidate in the US presidential race had to stop by his office for blessings.
No, we are not talking about an 80-year-old Mafiosi who heads the organised crime syndicate in Chicago. We are referring to former US President Barack Obama, who also had his beginnings in Chicago.
Since they left White House, Barack and Michelle Obama have had an afterlife like no other presidential couple has had in US history. The Obamas just refuse to ride into the sunset of our memories.
Barack Obama’s image not only looms large over his party, but also dominates the mind of current US President Donald Trump. From backing the Netflix documentary American Factory (2019) to Michelle Obama’s own memoir Becoming (2020), admonishing the Democratic party for acting like a “circular firing squad”, to addressing the 2020 cohort, the Obamas continue to bring political muscle to raging issues in the Trump era.
As Trump completely bungles up the US response to Covid-19, the country is on the verge of reaching a hundred thousand coronavirus casualties – it took an Obama to provide a blistering and credible critique of his erratic governance.
After appearing to not take on Trump for nearly the first two years of his term as President, Obama still managed to critique him without taking his name. But after the Trump administration’s failure to tackle coronavirus, Obama remarked that the pandemic “has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing.”
In a lot of ways, Obama resembles former Chinese president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin. While comparing leaders of the world’s “first democracy” and the “preeminent communist state” might seem odd, it is believed that even a decade after Zemin retired in 2002, he continued to manage the party and the presidency from the background.
This is reminiscent of the “margdarkshaks” – L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi – of the BJP. Obama seems to have emerged as the margdarshak of the US Democratic party, but unlike Advani and Joshi, he seems to actually determine the ideological direction of his party.
Obama’s contrarian impulses
Conventionally in US politics, once presidents retire they all follow a standard template. They write a book, give a speech here and there, speak to the media on matters of national importance, build libraries and presidential archives, and settle in luxurious homes with their families and dogs. This is precisely what both senior and junior Bush did, and even the larger-than-life Ronald Reagan.
This is probably what Obama wanted to do as well — “I think that if Hillary Clinton had won the election then I’d just turn over the keys,” he told The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief David Remnick in 2016.
But Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, coupled with the increasing risk of a centrist Democratic party being hijacked by the “hard-Left”, meant that there was going to be no ordinary post-retirement phase for Obama. It is possible that even if there were no such existential threats facing the political soul of Obama’s homeland, he would have still been active after his presidency.
Obama has two favourite quotes from Martin Luther King and he often cites them during his speeches. But both indicate contrary modes of activism, according to Politico’s Ryan Lizza. The first talks about the “the fierce urgency of now” and the second takes the view that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
While the first quote hints at acting now — “in the face of a sudden threat” such as Trump’s possible re-election, Politico points out the other one holds a more optimistic view of the future and advocates patience and incremental change.
Since he left office, Obama’s post-presidency politics has moved between these two ends of the spectrum. This has meant that the American citizens can never really get rid of the Obamas, even after they finished their own two terms, or even as their successor Trump is on the verge of finishing his first.
Trump’s obsession with Obama
The reason Obama can’t just simply walk away in silence is because all that he stood for is being challenged by Trump on a daily basis.
Even three-and-a-half years into his presidency, analysts still struggle to discern what it is that drives Trump. The closest they have come to is the idea that Trump’s aim is to just overturn his predecessor’s legacy. From the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Affordable Care Act, to the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has, indeed, undone a large part of Obama’s legacy.
But undoing his policies is not all, attacking Obama has been a central part of Trump’s speeches, tweets, and interviews. “More than three years after leaving the White House, Barack Obama appears to have taken up renewed residency. Not within its living quarters but, rather, inside President Trump’s head,” writes Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Baraback.
These attacks have meant that from time to time, Obama has been forced to publicly to defend his government’s past decisions or just straight up critique Trump. But this back and forth between Trump and Obama has meant that the latter continues to be active in politics, whether by accident or choice.
Obama’s quest to save his party
If Trump’s obsession has ensured that Obama continues to remain in the headlines. But at the end of the day, it is Obama’s own quest to ensure that his party isn’t hijacked by the Hard-Left, which has made him an active politician.
On several occasions, Obama has said that Democratic party leaders should not confuse their Left-leaning Twitter feeds with the real electorate — an apparent critique of Left-wing Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
There is one aspect of Obama that helps shed light on why nearly three years after leaving the White House, he continues to remain so involved. From Sanders to Pete Buttigieg, when one Democratic presidential candidate after the other visited Obama at his office in the West End of Washington DC, he asked them what their electoral strategy was and if they thought they would win. Whether Obama is contesting or not, for him the primary goal is to make his party win.
Indian corporates, be it Ratan Tata or Narayan Murthy, are often accused of not being able to let go. Even after stepping down, they either continue to manage their companies from the background, or worse, stage a coup and reinstall themselves. The US constitution does not allow a third term, so Obama, too, continues to manage his party from the background.