Barack Obama is ready to come back into the spotlight. After four years spent mostly out of the public eye, right on the heels of Donald Trump’s defeat, the ex-president is suddenly everywhere. He’s on the Tonight Show weighing in on whether Chicago deep-dish or New York–style pizza is better. He’s slamming the Knicks on Desus & Mero and deep in conversation with Oprah on Apple TV+. He’s talking books with Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times and lamenting, to Stephen Colbert, that he forgot to give Dolly Parton a Presidential Medal of Freedom—but don’t worry, he’ll just “call Biden.” He’s arguably taking up media oxygen that might otherwise be going to the newly elected president whose inauguration remains absurdly disputed. He is almost unavoidable.
And while Obama hasn’t changed, something has. The charm and ease that made him a political star in 2004 is landing a little differently now that the line that used to divide “celebrity” and “statesman” has blurred to a noxious smear. Whatever relief and nostalgia many felt when Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention—finally, he was back!—is leaching out as it becomes apparent that the man still thinks “star” and “ex-president” can be massaged into complementary identities. And so, while Trump and an astonishing number of high-ranking GOP members do everything in their power to overturn the results of the election in the middle of a pandemic that is killing almost 3,000 Americans a day, Obama’s out and about selling his new memoir, joshing around with TV hosts, and burnishing an enormously profitable personal brand. It was when news broke that he and Michelle Obama’s production company will make a show about how Trump botched his transition to becoming president that would be “part-documentary, part-sketch comedy” that something started to rankle. For one thing, we’re currently stuck in a second catastrophic Trump transition. For another, while his missteps were legion, they weren’t particularly funny to those affected by them, or for those who were around to fight them—which Obama absolutely wasn’t.
His absence was keenly felt. After Trump’s inauguration, Obama disappeared from public view for so long that it became, in internet parlance, a Thing. Everyone wondered about it: “Where is Barack Obama?” Gabriel Debenedetti wrote back in 2018, when desperate Democrats were trying to mobilize for the midterms, that Obama had “only agreed to hold three fund-raisers for Democratic groups this summer after fielding months of requests.” It was arguably worse than that: Democratic Party operatives discovered that they were in effect competing with Obama for donations—he was fundraising for his foundation and getting to donors in Silicon Valley and elsewhere first. They were tapped out by the time Democrats got to them. As one fundraiser put it, “Nobody expects him to be out there bashing Trump or being on the campaign trail every day. But to be sucking up resources now is just tone-deaf, and self-serving.” In June of 2020, some sources near Obama suggested to the New York Times that Obama’s broader absence during the campaign might represent an effort to “avoid overshadowing the candidate” (though, judging from his conduct now, it doesn’t seem like overshadowing Joe Biden is a particular concern).
Many defended him, and they had a point. For one thing, Obama deserved a break after eight years of presidential work under unrelenting Republican obstructionism. For another, it seems he modeled his post-presidential conduct on his own predecessor, George W. Bush—who remained decorously silent about his successor’s priorities and initiatives. But perhaps most clearly, his absence made strategic (and public-spirited) sense; if Trump was a backlash to Obama, Obama’s presence as a foil for Trump to inveigh against could only make matters worse. Keeping his powder dry seemed wise, and it counted when he used it: The Obamas were a galvanizing force when they showed up at the DNC.
But in these recent appearances, the most surprising thing might be that his political remarks about this moment feel stale. [Continue reading…]