World·Analysis

Obama the citizen: What's next for the outgoing president

Barack Obama will have a new address in the district not far from his current White House digs. He'll also have new opportunities to shave some strokes off his golf score and a new role returning to his community organizing roots.

After 8 years in the White House, public life means moving 10 minutes away

U.S. President Barack Obama concludes his farewell address in Chicago on Jan. 10, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

He'll have a new address in the district not far from his current White House digs. A new presidential library breaking ground in his hometown of Chicago. New opportunities to shave some strokes off his golf score. 

And if expectations hold true for Barack Obama, who implored supporters in his farewell address to "lace up your shoes and do some organizing," he'll embrace a new role — one that's a callback to his days in grassroots community action.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, the same day movers do much of the heavy lifting at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., says David Eagles, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

The 100 regular White House staffers will help move the Obamas out and unload the Trump family's belongings, which are in storage in Maryland, Eagles says.

On Nov. 4, 2008, the day he was elected president of the United States, Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, wave along with their daughters Sasha and Malia in Chicago. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

As for Obama's intentions on Jan. 21? Aside from unpacking, he's looking forward to rest and relaxation.

"Sleep, take my wife on a nice vacation —  and she has said it better be nice. Because she's earned it. She deserves it," he told his former senior adviser David Axelrod in a CNN interview last month.

A gifted writer, Obama is already thinking about the first book he'll author after leaving office. That would likely be a lucrative project, considering the $15-million advance awarded to former president Bill Clinton for his 2004 memoir. Obama could also find himself in demand on the speaking circuit, where ex-presidents have proven popular.

Obama, whose eclectic music playlists have attracted a popular following, has joked with the Swedish ambassador about seeking a job with his country's popular audio streaming service Spotify. If Obama is looking for work, he already has an offer from the service.

Watch: 'Couch Commander': Obama's retirement plans

Not that he'd need it to get by. As per the Former Presidents Act, Obama, like all ex-presidents, will collect an annual income equivalent to a standard executive schedule rate of pay for cabinet positions. Level I rates, as of last year, were $205,700.

That 1958 law was passed by Congress to uphold the dignity of the presidency after Harry Truman fell on hard financial times upon retiring from the presidency. Part of the package includes lifelong Secret Service protections, medical benefits and a private staffed office.

Keeping busy

Obama has already signalled he'll be an activist ex-president in the vein of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, says Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.

He'll likely keep busy, in other words, throwing his energy into causes like the non-profit spinoff from his My Brother's Keeper program, which is dedicated to helping disadvantaged black and Hispanic youths.

U.S. President Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters Malia, right, and Sasha, left, board Air Force One at Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station in Buzzards Bay, Mass., in August 2016. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

"This," Obama told a New York crowd in 2015, "will remain a mission for me and for Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life."

Having the platform of a former president without the political constraints of the office could be liberating.

"He can continue to pursue causes that are of interest to him in a meaningful way, and his agenda isn't dictated by world events," says Updegrove, author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives And Legacies After the White House. "As president, so much of what you do is reacting to world events you didn't anticipate."

'Greatest passion'

Most of all, eight years after assuming the Oval Office, Obama will return to the thing that possibly makes him happiest.

"His family," Updegrove says. "I think Barack Obama's greatest hobby is his greatest passion, which is family." 

The outgoing president's 15-year-old daughter Sasha is finishing high school in the city and the family opted not to uproot her. Their new home in Washington's tony Kalorama neighbourhood is just a 10-minute drive from the White House.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter receives applause after delivering a lecture in London. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

Obama's choice to remain in D.C. after leaving office is highly unusual. Updegrove notes the last president to stay in the district was Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1919, served until 1921, then died three years later.

What makes Obama's situation all the more unusual is that he will be living a stone's throw away from a successor who has talked about undoing much of his legacy.

"My guess is Obama will be active in speaking up if the president does something he doesn't agree with, albeit in a civil manner," Updegrove says.

Rehabilitative effect

For presidents who left the office in disgrace, a transition into private life can have a rehabilitative effect, says Nicole Hemmer, an expert on presidential studies who lectures at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal, but became a valuable foreign policy adviser to his successors Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even Clinton.

A 1948 photo shows president Harry S. Truman at the Democratic National Convention. When Truman was at risk of becoming financially destitute post-presidency, Congress passed the 1958 Former Presidents Act to guarantee ex-presidents with a pension to maintain the dignity of the office. (Associated Press)

Carter was a one-term president "who also left on a sour note," Hemmer says, but "was able to reinvent his career as an advocate for human and civil rights," becoming a beloved figure among Democrats. His post-presidential accomplishments are widely praised.

At 55 years old, Obama — "young, vibrant and healthy" — still appears to have years ahead of him to pursue causes that matter to him, whether it be gun control, nuclear non-proliferation or electoral redistricting, Hemmer says.

'It looks like he has plans to pick up right where he left off.- Nicole Hemmer

Having presented himself as a president conscious about speaking for all Americans for eight years, "he had a tough time openly addressing racial issues," she adds. That might now change.

The Obama Presidential Center, the planned $500-million library on the South Side of Chicago, is seen as a project that could help reinvigorate the neighbourhood. 

In his post-presidency life, Richard Nixon, shown campaigning in 1968, became a valuable foreign policy adviser to successors Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. (Reuters)

"So even the library has a civil-activism component to it," Hemmer says.

While Obama is a lover of golf and basketball — athletic talent notwithstanding — exiting public life doesn't mean he'll be any less political. 

"With respect to my priorities when I leave," Obama told CNN last month, "it's to build that next generation of leadership; organizers, journalists, politicians."

To Hemmer, that sounds a lot like a return to the community organizing roots that eventually led Obama toward a career in public service.

"It looks like he has plans to pick up right where he left off," she says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

With files from Sylvia Thomson

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