Barack Obama doesn’t want his post-presidency to be all about Donald Trump, but he knows some of it’s going to have to be.
Trump’s win upended his plans for life after leaving office, and people who’ve been talking to him say he’s been quietly sorting out how to honor the tradition of withholding criticism of his successor as he also considers how best to salvage his legacy and rebuild his party.
“The way he views his role is not that he himself, Barack Obama, is going to be out there giving fiery speeches and leading marches, but he wants to play a role in empower and lifting up the next generation of leaders,” said Jen Psaki, his White House communications director and an alum of both his presidential campaigns.
Already, former aides are revamping Organizing for Action, the group formed out of his old campaign structure. No longer about backing up Obama’s agenda in the White House, it will be a nexus for training activists and candidate recruitment, reshaped both by Trump’s win and some of the factors that contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Though OFA has been mostly quiet over the last two months and made no formal announcements, its Chicago headquarters has been filling up with new hires, including several old campaign aides, who are planning to focus on the mechanics of campaigns, from running Obama-style persuasion programs, integrating data and running paid canvassing operations. Though the first goal is designing the program for what they’ll aim to make hundreds of workshops nationwide, there’s already talk moving toward endorsing candidates.
And Obama has identified a few issues that would draw him out directly: a Muslim ban, though he still considers the chances of that remote, or moves that would cut back on the protections he put in place for the children, known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the country illegally as minors and who’ve been living here since.
“If he deports thousands of kids,” Obama has said several times in private meetings of late, according to people present, “I don’t know that I can sit on the sidelines.”
Also potentially on the list: a move by Trump to unravel the Iran deal or the Paris climate accord, or the shape of an Obamacare repeal and replacement.
“If things rise to the level where it’s a statement of who we are as a people and as a country, things that are important to him, then depending on the circumstances he will engage and he will talk,” said one of the people familiar with thinking about the post-presidency. “But this is now the moment where the next generation of Democratic or progressive leaders steps up and engages in the political fight, however defined and broadened.”
But he and advisers would like to avoid a constant Obama versus Trump dynamic.
“People close to him want to make sure his legacy is not necessarily defined by how he responds to Trump,” said one person who has been a part of the conversations about Obama’s plans. “He wants the next person to stand up, or the next group of people to stand up, and if he’s continually sucking up all the oxygen for the left, there’s no opportunity for that to happen.”
Obama won’t be George W. Bush, essentially disappearing into retirement. But he also won’t be Bill Clinton, a constant presence on the campaign trail.
The parts of Obama’s post-presidency that will touch on politics fall into four main categories, according to people familiar with the plans: the retooled OFA, a non-partisan training center for grassroots organizing that will be part of his Chicago-based foundation, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee run by his former attorney general Eric Holder, and his personal capacity as a former president in endorsing, campaigning and fundraising for other candidates.
He’s spoken about mentoring up and coming candidates, though there are no plans for formalizing that, or helping shape the 2020 presidential field.
Though many Democrats want to see Obama take an out-front role, at least in campaigning for other Democrats in 2017 and the 2018 midterms, he’s almost certain to limit that. Expect to him speak at the 2020 Democratic convention, several who’ve been talking to him have said, but don’t bet on seeing him politically much until then.
The exception may be a book tour that could come as early as next year, with Obama expected to spend his first year out of office writing.
“The voice will not necessarily be his voice,” Psaki said. “It’ll be about putting people in place.”
In addition to hiring of former White House political director David Simas as the CEO of the Foundation, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest aides, is expected to stay associated with the former president’s office for at least a stretch. Current White House deputy chief of staff Anita Decker Breckenridge, who’s been with Obama since the early days of his Senate campaign, will also join the former president’s office. A post-presidency chief of staff and press aide are likely to be among the other hires.
Meanwhile, emails and text messages have been flying around the Obama network. Moves to the private sector have been put on hold. Former aides have gotten back in touch. What were for some until November musings about maybe running for office at some point have gotten very real, very quickly.
Michael Blake, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and in the White House before winning an Assembly seat in the Bronx, said he’s been part of quite a few of those conversations himself, and that was part of what convinced him to make his current run for vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“A lot of people who were thinking about running and serving are deciding that now is the time,” Blake said. In 2008, Obama’s “line was, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’ We’re not going to be waiting anymore.”