A snarling and disproportionately vocal segment of the populace will exult when Barack Obama leaves the White House in January 2017. Whether they will be correspondingly welcoming toward the new inhabitant is not known. Columnist David Brooks pre-emptively declared his nostalgic fondness for the Obama presidency in a February column (“I’ll miss Barack Obama”), and I wonder if more such admissions will be forthcoming; can you see it in the anxious faces, hear it in the nervous comments, of some of the opposition—a creeping “we didn’t know what we had it until we saw what might rise in its place” sense of impending remorse (if not doom)? Starting around 1986 and through the end of his time in office, Ronald Reagan talked about lifting the restriction on presidential term limits, even countenancing an effort to repeal the Twenty-Second Amendment. Obama has offered no such proposal, though last summer some outlets misrepresented comments he made about his hypothetical re-electability to suggest that he had. Still, with relatively comfortable victories in consecutive popular and electoral college campaigns, he’d be in strong position to run and win—especially given, well, the competition. But the people have already twice had their say, and thus in accordance with the Constitution, he will leave, after eight years of petulant Republican obstructionism culminating in the refusal to let him fully exercise the Constitutionally accorded responsibility to appoint a Supreme Court nominee.
Where does he go next? Obama will be young for a former president, so those who’ve supported him anticipate a vigorous and presumably lengthy engagement with issues that have shaped his political philosophy over time. Or shaped their own: Save maybe for the dawn of a new presidency, there’s little that offers so enticing a slate on which to project hopes than a youthful post-presidency. Per custom, Obama will pen a post-presidential memoir, and being a natural and compelling writer—as anyone who read Dreams from My Father knows—he’ll probably do it better than most, even assuming he doesn’t dish on his opposition. He may find himself spoken of as a potential Supreme Court justice, though he’s hinted he doesn’t want that. What’s probably a safe bet is that he won’t go into a quiet retirement spent exploring heretofore unguessed-at artistic urges. What’s hoped is that neither will he single-mindedly devote his talents to growing a foundation in his and his family’s name.
Obama has said he’d like to get back in front of a classroom, and recently the New Yorker’s Cinque Henderson took this possibility to its logical extreme by imagining three touching-down points.
Forget a place like Columbia Law School, Henderson says (“To put it bluntly, rich white kids at rich white schools don’t need him”); instead, Obama could consider a position at one of the nation’s historically black colleges or universities, or at one of our eleven-hundred community colleges. But what Henderson really desires is that Obama, as improbable as it might be, think about teaching at an urban public K-12 school—perhaps a course in U.S. government for high school seniors:
In 2013, less than two per cent of public-school teachers were black men, which tells us that the overwhelming majority of kids, both black and white, have little direct exposure to professional black men in their daily lives. This has had a disastrous effect on the development of black students, and especially black boys, contributing to their staggering levels of behavioral issues, suspensions, and, ultimately, dropouts. A recent study by the Department of Education found that black boys receive more than two-thirds of all public-school suspensions. Another study showed that black students are less likely to be recommended for gifted programs when they are taught by non-black teachers. These problems are not straightforward—neither poverty nor racism nor the depredations of popular culture represent a single answer—but Obama, as a high-school teacher, could reinvigorate efforts to solve them.
Yes, more projected hopes, but it is interesting to think about, especially in light of current initiatives by New York, Philadelphia, and other cities to recruit black and Latino males to the teaching ranks. Obama probably won’t end up in this kind of classroom, but the idea of his lending his energies in some way to such an effort would have great appeal to advocates of public education, and perhaps even a measurably positive effect.
And it could still leave him time for other things. No one says Obama has to match the activity levels of the peripatetic Jimmy Carter, who as freelance diplomatic mediator, global health advocate, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, author, and Nobel Prize winner is now the indisputable yardstick for a long and productive life post-presidency. Yet there are worse models to follow than someone who, on top of everything else, has also continued to teach Sunday school. One should do good for its own sake. But couldn’t it also be the best revenge?