California Forum

Living in D.C., will Obama really refrain from Washington politics?

Former President Barack Obama has left the White House, but how much will he stay out of Washington politics?
Former President Barack Obama has left the White House, but how much will he stay out of Washington politics? Bloomberg

This month for the first time in nearly a century the United States will have two presidents living in Washington: Donald Trump, of course, and his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama.

Upon leaving office, most ex-presidents are delighted to depart that contentious community. They return to a familiar home providing normalcy. Ronald Reagan to California. George H.W. Bush to Houston. Bill Clinton to suburban New York as Hillary became a senator. George W. Bush to Dallas and his Texas ranch.

The Obamas kept their home on Chicago’s South Side, which has become an urban free-fire zone in recent years. But citing their daughter’s remaining years in a private Washington high school, the Obamas rented a D.C. mansion owned by Joe Lockhart, ex-Clinton press secretary now in New York with the National Football League. The Secret Service is building a wall around it.

Sasha’s high school is as good a cover story as any for Obama remaining in the capital of the nation’s politics and political media. He’s leased office space in the same building as the World Wildlife Federation. Presumably like many former office-holders, he and a helper will write a lucrative memoir.

Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, has said the Democrat greatly appreciated his predecessor’s long, strict silence after leaving office, giving his successor room to make decisions and mistakes on his own. And in a December interview Obama said he intended to do the same for Republican Donald Trump.

“I’m confident that Pres. George W. Bush didn’t agree with every single decision that President Obama was making,” Earnest said. “But he was extraordinarily respectful of the democratic process. Pres. Obama admired that.”

“I have to be quiet for a while,” Obama told CNN. “I don’t mean politically, I mean internally. I have to still myself.”

On Jan. 20 he began retirement quietly, intending a golfing vacation in Rancho Mirage. The weather was so rainy and (irony alert) cold that Obama took a transcontinental private jet ride to the British Virgin Islands to talk with Richard Branson about – wait for it – global warming.

Obama said that, following tradition, he intended to refrain from participating in D.C.’s daily political scrum. He said he might speak out, not on particular Trump policies, but only on something that “goes to some foundational issues about our democracy.” Uh-huh.

Many remain skeptical the community organizer who crafted his political career by talking so much can restrain himself. “I think he’s going to be more critical than previous presidents have been,” said Anthony Clark, who’s written on presidents. “He’s going to have to find a way to be anti-Trump without appearing to be anti-Trump.”

And – Oh look! – Obama’s avowed silence lasted all of 11 days. If you like your ex-president’s silence, you can keep your ex-president’s silence. He released word Jan. 30 that he “fundamentally disagrees” with Trump’s temporary immigration ban on certain countries and was “heartened” by protesters disrupting airports and elsewhere.

Instead of counseling a Hillary Clinton administration, “elder” statesman Obama confronts a leaderless Democratic Party. Instead of writing about his legacy Obama may find himself defending it, if Trump continues to dismantle and countermand the Democrat’s executive orders at the opening pace.

And Obama will surely find sympathetic ears among a Washington media that’s suddenly reawakened to a watchdog role with the GOP in the Oval Office.

Obama has said he wants to help build a new generation of organizers, activists, journalists and elected officials. To be sure, Obama was an effective fundraiser, holding more than one each of his 417 weeks in office.

But the key question is: Do Democrats really want the Chicagoan’s political help? Yes, he’s a big name, the biggest the party has left. But Obama tutored no obvious political successor. Under his leadership the party lost both houses of Congress and about 1,000 state legislative seats.

Republicans now ride higher politically across the country than at any time since before the Great Depression. The GOP controls 33 governor’s offices and both houses in 25 of those states, the most in 90 years.

And watch out – in just 21 months, Democrats must defend 25 of the 33 Senate seats up, 10 in states that Trump captured.

There’s really no strong historical parallel for Obama’s role and D.C. residency, perhaps suitable for the first black president. The last time an outgoing president opted to stay in Washington was 1921 when Woodrow Wilson left the White House to live on S Street.

When he took the oath in 1913, Wilson was a year older than Obama is entering retirement. In 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and took most of his eyesight. He couldn’t even attend his successor’s inauguration, let alone lead Democrats in the political fray. At 67, the 28th president died in his Washington home 93 years ago on Feb. 3.

Obama is only 55, a year younger than Jimmy Carter when he left office. Carter’s had a long, productive life in retirement, writing books, building homes for Habitat for Humanity and, even from Georgia, being a thorn in the side of presidents on Middle East policies.

Hard to picture Obama on a ladder shingling roofs. But given his short-lived vow of silence on Trump, he’ll likely have the thorn part down quite soon.

Andrew Malcolm began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. He can be contacted Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm.