Election of Donald Trump as President Has Changed Obama’s Future Plans


Whatever President Obama had planned for life after the presidency, the election of Donald Trump will likely change those plans.

Instead of building on his legacy, he’ll be defending it. Instead of helping to nurture his Democratic Party as an elder statesman, he’ll be helping to rebuild it — finding new generational leaders who can carry the banner in future elections.

And instead of providing friendly counsel to President Hillary Clinton, he’ll have a more complicated relationship with President Donald Trump.

“Obama’s post-presidency just got exponentially more interesting,” said Cody Foster, a University of Kentucky historian who has studied the post-presidential lives of former presidents.

“Whereas he might have focused on building upon policies created during his administration, he must now defend his administration’s legacy,” Foster said. “Every policy, every veto, every word must now be carefully defended against an incoming leader eager to blindly press ‘undo’ on everything that Obama created. And President Trump can do that because he has a Republican Congress and is likely to have a more conservative Supreme Court.”

It’s Obama’s relationship with Trump that will likely be most scrutinized. Presidents have often relied on their predecessors for advice, support and even some sensitive diplomacy. In return, modern presidents have avoided public criticism of their successors — although they’ve sometimes conducted freelance foreign policy in a way that’s flummoxed the incumbent, as with Jimmy Carter’s outspoken work on human rights.

“I don’t see him immediately becoming a Jimmy Carter-like thorn in the new president’s side,” said Anthony Clark, author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies“But I also think he’s going to be more critical than previous presidents have been. He’s going to have to find a way to be anti-Trump without appearing to be anti-Trump.”

After the election, Obama himself described that tightrope as having “less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle” but about “core questions about our values and our ideals.”

In recent weeks, Obama has begun to talk more specifically about the role he’ll play in partisan politics after the election. At his end-of-the-year press conference, Obama said he sees a role in giving “counsel and advice” to the Democratic Party in an effort to reach areas of the country where Democrats have not performed well — places where he said “Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically correct, out-of-touch folks.”

Obama said he’ll also work to rebuild a Democratic Party that’s been decimated over the course of his presidency. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. But since 2010, Democrats have lost thousands of downballot races — the congressional seats, governor’s mansions, state legislative districts and local offices that form a kind of bench for a political party.

“With respect to my priorities when I leave, it is to build that next generation of leadership; organizers, journalists, politicians. I see them in America, I see them around the world, 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds who are just full of talent, full of idealism,” he said. “And the question is how do we link them up? How do we give them the tools for them to bring about progressive change? And I want to use my presidential center as a mechanism for developing that next generation of talent.”

“But the day-to-day scrum, not only is it contrary to tradition for the ex-president to be involved in that, but I also think would inhibit the development of those new voices,” Obama said.

That’s not a departure from past presidents, Clark said, but Obama may be a bit more upfront about using his foundation as a party-building tool.

“Prior to the election, my thought was that both the library and the foundation would be more in line with Jimmy Carter, who spent more time on his foundation and less on his library,” Clark said. “Now, I see it more like the Reagan Presidential Center, which is the altar on which rising conservative stars must go to become baptized.”

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