Recently, former President Barack Obama has been campaigning for Democratic legislative candidates. He has openly criticized President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, saying, “Unlike some, I actually try to state facts. I believe in facts … I don’t believe in just making stuff up.” His extensive campaign for his party provokes a question: What is the role of a former president?
Former President George W. Bush has spent his retirement writing a memoir, doing charity work in Africa and with veterans and painting at his ranch. Rarely has he made a public appearance, outside of a speech last October, which was generally received as a unifying moment. Bush has gracefully exited the political stage, giving away the spotlight to those currently in office.
What did the other 42 presidents do when they left office? Many went on vacations and wrote books. Others worked in philanthropy, like former President Jimmy Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Only two presidents ever held a civil office after leaving the presidency. Former President John Quincy Adams served nine terms in the House of Representatives, and former President William Howard Taft served on the Supreme Court. Outside of those two, most presidents left the political stage altogether.
Obama has made it very clear that he will not be the same as his predecessors. Former presidents participating in politics is certainly uncommon, though not unprecedented. The issue with what Obama is doing is that he is not just advocating for his own party’s policies and candidates with class. He has decided to denigrate and degrade Republicans.
The most frustrating part of what Obama has done is the hypocrisy of it. Obama, whether mistakenly or purposefully, told mistruths as president. He told the American people that we could keep our health plans if we wanted. He also told us that the Affordable Care Act was not a tax, but the constitutionality of the law relied upon the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it as a tax. He and his Democrats have blamed Trump for the separation of families at the border, but many of the media’s pictures of children “in cages” were taken during Obama’s presidency. This is not an admonition of the policy, nor a criticism of Obama’s policies during his tenure. My criticism lies solely with Obama’s questionable relationship with the “fact-based reality” and politics he has claimed to believe in during this campaign season.
The presidential election in 2016 was, by all accounts, a contentious and stressful time. Many across the country, including students on this campus, publicly wished for a third Obama term instead. This president allowed himself to become a part of this divisive culture. One of the things I am most proud of about our great country is that our former presidents can stand together at public events, cordially and respectfully, unencumbered by political disagreements
When Trump leaves office, whether it be in January 2021 or 2025, I hope he will leave politics behind. He will have served his term and should return to private life like the vast majority of his predecessors. I can’t say I believe Trump will act as he should, especially considering his very active Twitter account, with an average of 11 to 12 tweets a day.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about tribalism and anger in our political discourse today, fueled by many of our leaders. This list includes former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Presidents cannot allow themselves to be added to this list. Obama should not tarnish his own legacy like this. He is a charming and charismatic man, without any personal scandals during his presidency, though he did have several political ones. His and his wife Michelle Obama’s friendship with George and Laura Bush is admirable and is my older brother’s favorite story in modern politics. It brings a smile to everyone’s face to see people so politically different become great friends. It’s emblematic of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who, though fundamentally ideologically opposed, were best friends for decades.
These are the examples we need to follow. Both George W. Bush and his father left politics largely alone after their presidencies. Carter did the same, as so many before him had done. They did the right thing. Obama is heading down a path, with the rest of the country, towards incivility. While he has the right to free speech, just like any other citizen, a man of Obama’s stature should use more discretion when speaking publicly. His propensity to speak his mind with as much force as he has, during and after his presidency, has been followed by a president even more open with his words.
David Hayse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.