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Unique office of being a former president

 

This editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

We have not heard much from the 44th president of the United States during the last four years. Now he has reappeared. The occasion is the publication of his presidential memoir — “Promised Land.”

The timing is odd. The country is in real distress right now and the new president needs the stage and as much support as he can get.

Barack Obama waited four years to produce this book. Why not wait another year and meanwhile work on … well, any number of needed efforts? Maybe a national relief program for the thousands of homeless who have become invisible and lost their soup kitchens and shelters during COVID-19

Or a jobs program for the thousands of restaurant workers who are now not working.

But there is the former president appearing on all sorts of talk shows, yukking it up with the various hosts, and showing us what we already knew — he’s cool.

So? We know Obama can also be inspirational when he wants to be. He was a good head of state if a sometimes mediocre head of government.

But Obama is not saying much these days that inspires or even comforts. The nation that he promised to heal is more divided and broken than ever. The Democrats never gave President Donald Trump a break and the Republicans are not going to give Joe Biden one.

And Trump (who never got the head of state memo) is going to flout one more presidential norm. Instead of quietly retiring and accepting his fate, he will attempt to keep hold of his party, feed his base red meat and generally harass Biden.

What has Obama got to say about all this?

Not much.

What is he up to these days? Not registering voters or trying to save the Black family or trying to stop the violence in Chicago. (He never moved back. He stayed in Washington, D.C.) No, he has become a TV producer, of all things.

Has Obama changed? Were we wrong about him all along? Was there less there than met the eye, and more vanity and smugness than we dared admit? Was there not all that much hard thinking behind the pretty words?

Maybe we are better off with presidents who promise only to be good caretakers and not to be hope or change personified. Without Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy’s Camelot would have been only a fable. Maybe Joe Biden will get more done than Obama even tried to accomplish.

Or has Obama simply not found his former presidency? It’s a unique office being a former president.

Bill Clinton was a pretty solid president and an embarrassing former president.

George W. Bush was quiet and did his charitable work quietly.

Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower managed their former presidencies well.

William Howard Taft went on the Supreme Court, which some hoped Obama would do.

Jimmy Carter, as everyone knows, gave us the best former presidency of all — advocating for human rights, overseeing fair elections around the globe and building houses for people who did not have them. He actually picked up a hammer and worked. And he taught Bible study every Sunday.

Carter just did good, wherever and whenever he could. He used his former presidency well and caused many to rethink their opinion of the man. His service raised his stature.

Obama’s ex-presidency is, so far, going the way of Clinton’s: His self-absorption is diminishing him.

The nation is on the brink of a real public health and economic collapse, and for a while it seemed we might have a constitutional crisis, with Trump refusing to admit his defeat and the legitimacy of the election.

And Obama has nothing better to do than hawk a book on the talk-show circuit?

The former president is still young. There is time for another, and better, chapter.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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