Home > News > Is Obama breaking norms as a former President? Not really.
152 views 8 min 0 Comment

Is Obama breaking norms as a former President? Not really.

- September 25, 2018

As former president Barack Obama has begun campaigning for Democrats in the 2018 midterms, we’ve seen a predictable partisan reaction. Former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, for example, charged that Obama was “breaking presidential norms with his self-serving foray into partisan demagoguery.”

My research, however, suggests that Obama is following a well-worn path of former presidents, who often play the roles of moral statesmen, party builders and vocal leaders of the partisan opposition.

Here are three takeaways from Obama’s foray into partisan politics.

1. Obama is not shattering norms.

George Washington’s decision not to run for a third term was long a deeply cherished norm. Coupled with leaving the Continental Army after the American Revolution, Washington’s retirement from public office solidified public romanticization of him as the American Cincinnatus.

But the idea that former presidents simply leave the field is false, even in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Washington had accepted a commission in the U.S. Army from John Adams to help plan for war with France, then died only 33 months after “retiring.” Thomas Jefferson groomed his two successors, James Madison and James Monroe, for office and continued to advise these presidents on how to handle foreign affairs. And after his presidency, John Quincy Adams returned to the House of Representatives, where he served 18 years. Even a deeply unpopular Herbert Hoover reentered public service to lead two presidential commissions on reorganizing the federal government in the 1940s and ’50s.

To be sure, more recently presidential retirement has seemed less exciting and less partisan. Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has been dedicated to humanitarian causes, including helping to eliminate the Guinea worm scourge in Africa and building houses for the less fortunate under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity. But Carter has also stayed involved in U.S. affairs, negotiating on peace missions and criticizing presidents of both parties for how they handled foreign policy — most recently, Obama, for failing to close Guantanamo Bay. Bill Clinton remained politically active through his foundation work, but also in party politics. In elevating the ambitions of his spouse, Hillary Clinton, former president Clinton left a deeper imprint on the Democratic Party.

What is norm-breaking is that Obama is one of the few modern presidents who left office with substantial political support, despite losing his “third term.” Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush all left office with below-majority support in the last presidential approval poll taken while they were in office; Nixon, of course, resigned, and Johnson chose not to seek reelection in 1968. Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush left the White House because they failed to win reelection. Like Obama, Ronald Reagan might have remained politically active in his post-presidency, but he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last 10 years of his life.

2. Respected ex-presidents can help shape policy and party.

Obama’s desire to remain politically active is perhaps not surprising, given that his public approval remains high. Similarly, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman left office with considerable political capital — and also refused to watch from the sidelines. Both men appeared to believe that the high-stakes partisan battles of the era were too important to sit out, given anti-communist hysteria, John Birch conspiracy theorists and the splintering of the Democratic Party over civil rights.

After leaving office in 1953, Truman worked for nearly two decades to help redefine the Democratic Party — including ushering out Democrats who opposed civil rights reform and greater federal involvement in managing the postwar economy. He helped add a civil rights plank to the 1956 Democratic Party platform and became the first former president to testify before Congress, during Eisenhower’s presidency. Less than 10 months out of office, he denounced McCarthyism on prime-time television.

Eisenhower was just as political. After leaving office in 1961, he remained immersed in the internal politics of the Republican Party, trying to prevent the party from kicking out its liberals and moderates. He denounced President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society programs for expanding the federal budget. And he groomed quite a few GOP leaders to be successful governors. Eisenhower met with Kennedy on several occasions to discuss foreign policy crises in Cuba, Laos and Vietnam. To be sure, Eisenhower also believed that former presidents should sometimes hold back. He declined to steer the ideological direction of the Republican Party — which helped lead to Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964.

3. Post-presidential involvement can be risky.

Former presidents want to defend and advance their personal political legacies. They also want to maintain the institutional prestige of the presidential office. Truman’s and Eisenhower’s experiences suggest that these ambitions can be at odds with one another.

As time passes, Americans approve more of their former presidents. Getting involved in partisan contests jeopardizes this softening opinion. If former presidents remain entangled in party politics, they risk inflaming partisan tensions. Obama has promised to work on a number of political issues, such as criminal justice and redistricting reform, that could transcend the partisan divide. But that may be impossible if he remains deeply involved in party politics; instead of unifying, his involvement may amplify partisan differences on these issues.

But some kinds of political engagement end up enhancing the presidency’s institutional prestige in the long run. Truman took a calculated risk when he attacked McCarthy’s conservative sympathizers and helped reduce the senator’s power. Out of principle, Eisenhower felt obligated to support Kennedy’s and Johnson’s foreign policies — but his unwillingness to challenge their decisions to increase troop deployments in Vietnam might not have been in the presidency’s long-term best interest, nor the country’s.

As Thomas Cronin argues, the U.S. presidency is a deeply venerated institution — but that reverence might distort any individual president’s sense of right and wrong. Former presidents have an exceptional platform from which to speak up about current presidents’ behavior. An activist ex-president may have the power to thwart any attempts to glorify the executive office or treat it as above criticism — something that can conceivably benefit the institution in the long run.

Nicholas Jacobs is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia.