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Becoming Citizen Obama: The Outgoing President’s Next Job

7 minute read

Excerpted from TIME’s “Barack Obama: Eight Years,” a definitive, one-of-kind 96-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition. Available at retailers and at Amazon.com.

Over a late-night martini in the White House’s second-floor residence, President Barack Obama has been known to prod his dinner guests with a simple question: What should he do next?

After nearly eight years in the confining bubble of the Oval Office, where a president’s most precious asset is time, Obama will soon have an abundance of hours, days and months to forge what he will. So in private dinner parties, often with Silicon Valley executives, Hollywood stars and public intellectuals, the president has kept turning over his guests’ ideas: Marshal the cure to a disease. Promote peace abroad. Foster understanding among a diverse society at home.

Obama, at 55, will become one of the youngest ex-presidents in the nation’s his­tory, eclipsed by a handful that includes Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant and Bill Clinton. As his time as the leader of the free world comes to a close, Obama is preparing for reentry.

The modern post-presidency has been de­fined by extremes. Bill Clinton launched a high-profile foundation that has had significant impact and has grown exponentially, while also earning many millions of dollars on the speaking circuit. George W. Bush had far fewer appearances and took up water­ color painting. Obama appears ready to chart a course somewhere in between, toggling be­ tween the limelight and a return to the social­ justice issues that sparked his interest in pub­lic service back in the 1980s.

In a notable departure from precedent, Obama and his family will stay in Washington after his term is up so that his daughter Sasha can graduate from her high school, which she is scheduled to do in 2019. The Obamas will live in the Kalorama neighborhood and will become the first First Family to remain in the capital since Woodrow Wilson was president. While the 44th president will surely do his best to give the 45th a free lane to govern, the mere fact that Obama will be in Washington means his comings and goings will very likely be closely chronicled, whether he is out walk­ing the family’s dogs, Bo and Sunny, or ad­dressing a policy group.

Given his huge popularity—Obama is exit­ing with ratings that fall just shy of those of Bill Clinton, who left office in the midst of an economic boom-the ex-president will be a “get” on the speaking circuit, where, if his immediate predecessors are any guide, he has the potential to earn tens of mil­lions of dollars. Already a three-time author, Obama is expected to write a memoir, which could fetch an advance rivaling Bill Clinton’s reported $15 million. And despite persistent rumors that the former law professor was open to a Supreme Court nomination, aides say Obama stands by a 2014 statement ruling out the “monastic” lifestyle associated with a seat on the high court.

The return to civilian life will also be a time for Obama to burnish his legacy, as is standard for ex-presidents. George W. Bush launched an institute focused on veterans outreach, ex­panding health care in Africa and empowering female leaders across the globe. The Clinton Foundation has morphed into a billion-dollar behemoth with health-care, education, cli­mate and global-development arms.

Obama has already kick-started the Obama Foundation, which will take the lead in con­structing Obama’s presidential library in Chi­cago as well as the programs that will ema­nate from it. Longtime Obama friend Marty Nesbitt is overseeing the organization, whose board includes top donors and political ad­visers. Obama aides are reluctant to discuss initial plans for the organization, arguing that they don’t want to distract from his final days in office. But they say tentative ideas include sections devoted to continuing advocacy for Obama’s Affordable Care Act and climate­ change efforts, both signature items of his presidency. The foundation will also seek to defend Obama’s foreign-policy record, in­cluding a rapprochement with Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal.

Another topic that America is likely to hear more about from citizen Obama is the com­plex interaction between racial tension, gun control and criminal-justice reform. Although he made history as the first black president, and racial identity was the basis of his best­ selling autobiography Dreams from My Father, Obama was wary of discussing race during much of his tenure in the White House.

That attitude began to change with the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch guard who killed the unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. The epi­sode struck a chord with Obama, prompting him to open up about the state of the coun­try’s race relations. In a televised press con­ference following Zimmerman’s acquittal, the president described the experiences of being followed while shopping in a department store and of hearing the locks engage on car doors as he walked down the street. “Tray­von Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama told America.

During the remainder of his second ad­ministration, as shootings of black men by police received more attention, Obama began speaking out more frequently about systemic racism and the tension between police and the communities they serve. He is likely to be even more vocal once he leaves office. “These are issues that in a lot of ways have defined his presidency and are unfinished,” says one White House official.

Already, Obama has close ties to two non­profits that could help. In 2014, in the after­ math of the Martin killing, Obama kicked off My Brother’s Keeper, a White House initia­tive advocating mentorship for young men of color that became a stand-alone organization. Obama took on his own group of mentees, mostly black and Hispanic high school stu­dents from the Washington area. The presi­dent is planning to assume a substantial role in the organization once he is freed from the fundraising restraints and general responsi­bilities of the White House.

There’s also Organizing for Action, a grass­ roots effort formed from the president’s 2012 re-election team to support his legisla­tive agenda. The president has held a steady stream of fundraising events for the nonprofit, which focuses on such matters as climate change and immigration reform. Obama is ex­pected to take on a more formal role with the group after he leaves the White House.

The two organizations help bring Obama full circle to what got him started in public service. “I’ll go back to doing the kinds of work that I was doing before, just trying to find ways to help people-help young people get educations, and help people get jobs, and try to bring businesses into neighborhoods that don’t have enough businesses,” Obama told a group of students in Washington in 2015. “That’s the kind of work that I really love to do.”

From “Barack Obama: Eight Years.” In his historic Presidency, Barack Obama led the United States through eight tumultuous and remarkably active years. And in this definitive, one-of-kind Special Edition, TIME’s experts assess the impact his Presidency had on the U.S. economy, foreign policy, health care and so much more Along with spectacular and often moving images, TIME’s unmatched writers and reporters give this Presidency a clear-eyed context through issues of race, inclusion and military approach. This edition delivers sharp, fresh stories and an extra bonus: TIME’s foray into augmented reality, in which the cover and several inside pages spring to life via curated audio and video pieces accessed easily through the free TIME Special Edition app.

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