In Trump Era, Frustrated Democrats Are Asking, 'Where Is Obama?'

7 hours ago
Originally published on September 6, 2018 7:16 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since he left the White House, Barack Obama has been pretty quiet. And to the distress of some Democrats, he has been absent from the midterm campaign trail. That is until now. He'll appear with congressional candidates this weekend in California, and tomorrow in Illinois, he'll give a speech calling on Americans to reject authoritarian politics. NPR's Melissa Block reports on the challenges of Obama's post-presidency in the age of Trump.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's not just Democratic leaders wondering where Obama's been. Even "Saturday Night Live" got in on the act with a parody lament, "Come Back, Barack."

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KENAN THOMPSON: (As character) Maybe you can come back and make a speech. How much would that cost - for real? Oh, no, we definitely can't afford that. Well, you enjoy your retirement, homie.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Come back, Barack.

BLOCK: Behind the scenes, Obama's been writing a memoir. He's offered counsel to a number of Democrats considering a run for president in 2020, and he's focused on his foundation and planned a presidential museum in Chicago. In the few public remarks Obama has made since leaving the White House, he's folded in some lightly veiled criticism. For example, when he eulogized John McCain this past weekend, he chided those who traffic in bombast and insult.

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BARACK OBAMA: In phony controversies, in manufactured outrage.

BLOCK: Obama declined our request for an interview. He has in written statements condemned the policy of separating families at the border, and he's called abandoning the Iran nuclear deal a serious mistake. But he hasn't mentioned Trump by name even as his successor is attacking him personally and dismantling much of his legacy, undoing policies on trade, climate change and health care.

JULIAN ZELIZER: He's really been remarkably absent since leaving office.

BLOCK: That's Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. He says by mostly staying on the sidelines, Obama is following in the tradition of past presidents - treat the new president with dignity and respect, and keep quiet. The problem, Zelizer says, is that Trump has upended every norm, and his actions demand a response.

ZELIZER: These are not normal times, and so that metric of what a former president should do doesn't really work right now.

VALERIE JARRETT: Let's face it. He could comment all day long every day, and it probably still wouldn't be enough to make people feel OK given everything that's going on in the country today.

BLOCK: Valerie Jarrett is one of Obama's closest friends and advisers.

JARRETT: It's really his job to make sure that that voice is not diluted by commenting on every single thing that happens. Is he disturbed about the impact many of these reversals are having on people's lives - profoundly.

BLOCK: Jarrett says of course Obama wishes he had turned the presidential baton over to a better steward, as she puts it. But he believes that constantly taking Trump on would inevitably turn him into a Republican target and distract attention from the issues. Another close confidant, Obama Foundation Chairman Marty Nesbitt, says Obama is carefully calibrating how he engages.

MARTY NESBITT: He understands that, you know, his voice can suck a lot of oxygen out of the room and that he needs to give space to the next generation of progressive leadership to take the reins of the party and move it along in the right direction.

BLOCK: Obama's low profile up until now is entirely consistent with everything we know about the country's 44th president, says Obama biographer David Maraniss.

DAVID MARANISS: As a community organizer, he was always trying to push the people out in front of himself. I think that as president he was trying to do that. And it didn't always work. And it actually frustrated a lot of people that he wasn't more vocal and that the party suffered because of that during his eight years as president even as he was thriving. So here's a chance for him to make up for that.

BLOCK: And Obama can start to make up for that on the campaign trail. Maraniss says remember that he has always taken the long view, that long arc of the moral universe that Obama often quotes bending toward justice.

MARANISS: This is a real test of his philosophy, which is that the correct will prevail in the end, that 50 years from now the Trump retrograde presidency will diminish and the changes that Barack Obama was a small part of ushering in will prevail. I think he still believes that. But it's certainly being put to the test in this moment.

BLOCK: That core belief is at the heart of the Obama Foundation's mission. And that foundation is a key part of how Obama is shaping his post-presidency. Tomorrow on the program, we'll visit the foundation in Chicago and its program to train the next generation of community organizers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I said I'm alive.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I'm alive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm awake.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I'm awake.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I'm energized.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I'm energized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "APOLLO'S MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.