Ex Leaders – the Case of Barack Obama

Do ex leaders, former leaders, have any responsibility at all to their ex followers, their former followers? The answer to this question might be said to depend on the circumstance. So, let me be specific. For the purposes of this piece, I am confining the discussion to presidents of the United States. Do they, after they leave office, have any obligation at all to the American people?

Constitutionally and even politically, of course they do not. In fact, some former presidents – both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush come to mind – have made it a point to be devoutly apolitical once they ended their presidential tenure. Further, unless one is an absolutist, many variables might dictate the answer to my original question of whether American presidents owe the American people anything once they exit the White House.

Here’s an important one: age. Some presidents end their tenures when they are relatively old. Donald Trump, for example, who was 74. Other presidents do so when they are relatively young, such as Barack Obama, who, when he left, January 2017, was relatively young. He was 55, middle-aged, with years, decades left, assuming he remained healthy, of a presumably productive life.      

Obviously, Barack Obama and his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama, are entitled to do whatever they please. He has more than paid his dues, having served the country with every fiber of his being during eight years in the White House. Still, his near complete withdrawal from the American political firmament is a disappointment.

It was a disappointment during the 2020 presidential campaign, when his involvement was little and late. And it is a disappointment now, when his involvement in the Voting Rights Bill – H.R. 1 – is, so far certainly, tantamount to nonexistent.  Michelle Obama has, at least, lent her name to a group that has taken a stand. This week it sent an open letter to Americans urging them to support the voting rights bill. But Barack Obama? Crickets.

Since he left the White House Obama has made an enormous amount of money through book sales (especially his recent memoir, A Promised Land), speaking engagements, and a highly lucrative deal (along with his wife) with Netflix. He is now worth some $70 and counting. No begrudging him. It’s the American way – we are, after all, capitalists, and proud of it.  

Still, Obama’s silence on H.R. 1 has been deafening. Democrats across the board have said over, and over again, every which way, that this bill is of historic importance and is therefore their priority. (It has already cleared the House; it remains to be passed by the Senate.) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly said that failure to pass it “is not an option.” And President Biden has declared it a “landmark piece of legislation that is urgently needed to protect the right to vote, the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy.”

So, back to the question: does Obama the former leader owe his former followers anything? Anything on, for example, “this landmark piece of legislation.” Technically obviously no. Morally maybe yes.    

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