With a bipartisan budget deal delivering a bit of badly-needed Christmas cheer to Washington, D.C., it's safe to assume that President Obama's top policy priority right now is simply getting out of 2013 without any more drama. Shortly after his second inauguration, the White House had a tough year amid a confluence of scandals, congressional idiocy, and the president's glaring mismanagement. Here at the end of his fifth year, Obama is polling at a career low. He has never looked so unprepared to hold his office.
With this in mind, this week was an interesting time to learn that the president has begun making tentative post-presidency plans. According to the New York Times, Obama recently appointed an aide to start working on his presidential library and has begun to put out feelers for potential donors. The White House insists that its focus lies fully in the present, but the news is not surprising. The man is in his second term, after all, and post-office plans do need consideration. A president's library is generally considered the last great statement of a POTUS's political life; their definitive version of the story.
But in shaping a legacy — especially in regards to a president's eventual place in history — a library can only undergird what the officeholder is already leaving behind—both in and out of power. George W. Bush, who opened his library this year, has spoken volumes with what he's does with his free time: not much. No matter what's contained in his personal papers, the simple and unencumbered life that Bush has sought in retirement all but completes a picture of a man conscripted into politics and moved thereafter by external actors.
In contrast, Bill Clinton has been as heavily photographed and quoted as his partisan fellows will allow, thus reinforcing the image of a swashbuckling schmoozer and our era's most consummate political animal. Jimmy Carter has demonstrated how a post-White House life can massively redirect a legacy. An unpopular one-term president who left office in 1981, Carter promptly associated himself with Habitat for Humanity and has gone on to vociferously and intelligently participate in public debate. In the process, Carter has secured a legacy for himself far beyond the mire of the late 1970s.
Potentially the biggest beneficiary of legacy reshaping will be our current president. No matter what the polls say now — and no matter what befalls the Affordable Care Act — one thing is assured: Barring catastrophe to himself or his policies, Barack Obama is going to be the best former-president in modern history.
The presidents emerti club has become an increasingly visible fraternity, but aside from Carter's volubility and Clinton's meddling, little policy work is demanded of an ex-president. PR skills, willingness to serve as an American envoy-at-large, and, above all, charisma are the sole requisites. But hard politics? Nothing more than defending what you did in office. Speechifying with all the hard work done was practically made for Barack Obama.
In 2016, Obama will be 55. Assuming the years of smoking haven't ravaged his lungs, we may have this media juggernaut around for the next 40 years. Imagine it: a vaunted four decades of nothing but inspiring the next generation, of soaring oratory in faraway lands and corporate parks alike, of endless platitudinous campaigns to unite and to solve and to elevate.
Adding to the stature of "ex-president Obama" will be his standing as the nation's first black president. Despite criticism that he has largely neglected and taken for granted the black community while in office, Barack Obama nonetheless possesses a unique claim to his chosen identifier, one that recedes when convenient and surges when, say, making a campaign stop with Al Green. Such overt code-switching is only possible for someone of immense personal charisma, and in an American president, it's more than enough to earn the mantle of a genuinely transformative figure.
An ex-president surrounded by such a cult of personality ceases to be a politician and quickly transcends to icon status. Just as JFK was retroactively endowed with the nation's fondness for Camelot and our ruefulness at his wasted life, so will Obama's achievements be multiplied by his representing a unifier of identities.
There's also a good chance that history will paint Obama's presidency in the context of difficulties stemming from that blackness. Consider our vantage now, a mere 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act, and then imagine how these will look in 50 more: the birther movement, the parade of idle comments emphasizing Obama's otherness, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) going Southern Strategy in setting the president's failure as an agenda priority, the peculiar timing of the Tea Party's movement to "take back America" — summarily, the inexplicable toxicity he represents to the right wing. American conservatism often looks ugly 50 years later, but perhaps never more so than when we unpack the impossible climate of latter day Washington.
Obama's presidency is enough of a mixed bag to serve as a Rorschach test. Perhaps we'll remember him as an indecisive, overwhelmed analyst in an era that demanded something closer to a military strongman to keep Congress in line. Then again, we may fondly remember how he kept a relatively steady hand in the face of unprecedented obstructionism and allowed the recovery to gurgle on. A lot depends on the success of the ACA, and nearly everything depends on how his successor performs. In any event, President Obama is not one to rock the boat — history's impression of his tenure will likely be shaped by its impression of the previous status quo.
And, of course, with how he follows his two terms. It seems likely that he will be among the most luminous public figures in the nation's history. A post-office Obama will be clothed in a transformational mystique: he will be media-ready and will constantly deploy his proven ability to sweep America off its feet. As we depart what should prove to be the roughest patch of Obama's term, keep in mind the inevitable scrubbing that awaits his legacy when he gets a chance to really put the charm on — when the pressure's off.