Ladies and Gentlemen, the Alt-President of the United States

How can we miss Barack Obama if he never goes away? Hopefully we can’t, because he won’t.

He’s not really doing anything former presidents haven’t done before. He’s just doing it better.

Barack Obama, out of the Oval Office for all of 111 days, has been refreshingly conspicuous in his absence from the White House. With some high-profile vacation stops — and some equally high-profile statements on pivotal matters, foreign and domestic — the former 44th president has undertaken to tweak the rules of ex-presidential decorum, and to stake out new rhetorical territory for a beloved leader on the world stage. You don’t have to be in the White House to speak truth to power ... and look pretty damn good doing it.

Since leaving the White House, the former chief executive of the United States has been making all the right visible moves, with his partner in all things, former first lady Michelle, right at his side.

Having lunch in Manhattan with U2 frontman Bono. Golfing in Hawaii, missing putts with the best of ‘em. Huddling with the chieftains of Silicon Valley. Breaking bread with Warren Buffett in Omaha. Chillin’ with Richard Branson on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. Getting some sun on Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando’s old haunt in French Polynesia.

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But it hasn’t all been kite-surfing, cargo shorts, and baseball caps worn backwards. On Jan. 30th, 10 days after leaving office, the former president’s office released a statement — his first since decamping from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — backing Americans protesting Donald Trump’s temporary prohibition on U.S.-bound refugees and travelers from some majority-Muslim nations. 

“President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. In his final official speech as president, he spoke about the important role of citizen and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy – not just during an election but every day,” said Kevin Lewis, spokesman for POTUS44.

Since the end of his term, Obama has used his bully-pulpit throw weight to further the aims of Organizing for Action (OFA), the progressive nonprofit launched in 2013 and focused on “mobilizing and training the next generation of progressive organizers and leaders,” according to the OFA website. 

With 250 chapters around the country, OFA counts itself as committed to shutting down climate-change denial, supporting comprehensive immigration reform, and advancing an unapologetically progressive political agenda.

From the website: “With grassroots chapters in neighborhoods across the country, OFA volunteers are building this movement from the ground up, person to person, community by community—because democracy isn’t a spectator sport.” 

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On March 23rd, on the seventh anniversary of Obamacare, the former president released another statement, in the face of Republicans in Congress doing everything they could at that moment to dismantle it:

“I’ve always said we should build on this law, just as Americans of both parties worked to improve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid over the years. So if Republicans are serious about lowering costs while expanding coverage to those who need it, and if they’re prepared to work with Democrats and objective evaluators in finding solutions that accomplish those goals – that’s something we all should welcome. But we should start from the baseline that any changes will make our health care system better, not worse for hardworking Americans. That should always be our priority.

“The Affordable Care Act is law only because millions of Americans mobilized, and organized, and decided that this fight was about more than health care – it was about the character of our country. It was about whether the wealthiest nation on Earth would make sure that neither illness nor twist of fate would rob us of everything we’ve worked so hard to build. It was about whether we look out for one another, as neighbors, and fellow citizens, who care about each other’s success. This fight is still about all that today.”

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On May 7th, he hopped into Boston to accept the JFK Presidential Profile in Courage Award, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. That’s where Obama talked in general terms about the American health-care system; the furious debate in the nation and on Capitol Hill as to its future; and about having the guts to do what’s right, not what ratifies the politics of convenience.

“I’ve been thinking on this notion on political courage this weekend, in particular about some of the men and women who were elected to Congress the year I was elected to the White House,” he said. "Many of them were new to Washington, had their entire careers ahead of them and in that very first term they had to take tough vote after tough vote because we were in crisis."

When the future of the Affordable Care Act was in their hands, he said, “these freshman congressmen and women knew that they had to make a choice, that they had a chance to insure millions and prevent untold worry and suffering, bankruptcy and even death, but that this same vote would likely cost them their new seats, perhaps end their political careers.”

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“These men and women did the right thing; they did the hard thing,” Obama said. “Theirs was a profile in courage. Because of that vote, 20 million people got health insurance who didn’t have it, and most of [those lawmakers] did lose their seats. ...”

“As everyone here now knows, this great debate is not settled, but continues. And it is my fervent hope … that regardless of party, such courage is still possible. I hope that current members of Congress recall that it actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful … but it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm and those who often have no access to the corridors of power.

“I hope they understand that courage means not simply doing what is politically expedient, but doing what they believe deep in their hearts is right.”

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By that point, Obama had already weighed in on the French presidential runoff election. In a video on May 4th, he lent his support to Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who, days later, gained entree to Élysée Palace when he trounced his right-wing challenger, Marine Le Pen, to become the next president of France.

Obama called Macron a stalwart “for liberal values” and said the former Rothschild investment banker and neophyte politician “put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world,” and was “committed to a better future for the French people.”

And in a dig maybe directed as much at Trump as at the nationalist Le Pen, Obama said Macron “appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.” Macron beat Le Pen by about 30 percentage points.

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It’s not that Obama’s necessarily living any larger than former presidents. He’s not really doing anything former presidents haven’t done before, he’s just doing it better, with what looks like more class and grace.

By smartly timing his appearances, picking his spots, and carrying himself with the same style he brandished in the White House, Barack Obama has become our alt-American president, a kind of shadow POTUS, an ambassador of American dignity and savoir faire, a welcome contrast to the glowering orange cartoon now occupying the White House.

Barack Obama was the rock star as president. Now, as much out of national necessity as personal inclination, he’s the rock star as former president, and he hasn’t missed a beat since he left the building.

“How can we miss you if you never leave?” the saying goes. As that saying relates to President Obama: Hopefully we can’t, because he won’t.

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Author and journalist Michael Eric Ross contributes to Medium. His writing has also appeared in PopMatters, The New York Times, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Salon, The Root, msnbc.com, BuzzFeed and other publications.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Alt-President of the United States