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What Barack Obama and wife Michelle are planning to do after leaving the White House


In the chaotic unpredictability of today’s US election one thing is certain — Barack and Michelle are set to leave the White House. Rosamund Urwin reveals the First Couple’s plans for their second act

Last week Barack Obama met a ghost of Halloween yet to come. As the President handed out sweets to trick-or-treaters at the White House’s annual party, he spotted one dressed as a “lame duck”. Come tomorrow, when the US should have a new President-elect, that is the mantle Obama will adopt until his White House departure on January 20. But as Americans head to the polls today, there will be many wishing they could vote for a constitutionally-prohibited Obama third term.

Barack and Michelle are well-liked now. A recent poll from Bloomberg found the First Lady was the most popular household name in US politics, with a score of +29. Barack came second, +11. That compared with -5 for Hillary Clinton and -25 for Donald Trump.

Obama himself seems content to be ticking off his final days in the Oval Office. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live! recently, he said: “If I were able to run for a third term, Michelle would divorce me. It’s useful that I don’t have the choice to make.”

However, he will be the first former president in almost 100 years to stay in Washington DC, since the Obamas don’t want to pull their younger daughter Sasha out of school. This means Obama can’t help but remain in the public eye. “I’m like the old guy at the bar where you went to high school, just hanging around, shirt buttoned a bit too low, still thinking he’s cool,” he joked.

At 55, Obama is still relatively young. He’s got unfinished business. And he will suddenly have a lot of free time. So what will be in his second act?

Making history

On the eve of leaving office, the sixth US President John Quincy Adams, said: “There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president.” However, their status has improved thanks to 1958’s Former Presidents Act, which means White House escapees receive a salary for life (currently $205,700 a year), an office, staff and 24-hour Secret Service protection.

Obama — like previous presidents — will be able to focus on legacy-building: establishing a presidential library (the Obama Presidential Centre in Chicago’s Jackson Park) and raising money for his causes. He knows the post-presidential period is a chance to shift how history remembers him.

Obama is expected to go back to being a social justice crusader, focusing on opportunities for the young, race relations, criminal justice reform, immigration and gun control. He told school pupils last year: “I’ll go back to doing the kind of work I was doing before… Help young people get an education, help people get jobs, and try to bring businesses into neighbourhoods that don’t have enough businesses. That’s the kind of work I love to do.”

In 2014 he launched My Brother’s Keeper, a mentoring initiative that helps improve opportunities for young black and Latino men. Obama has promised that he will keep working on the programme for the rest of his life.

“What this comes down to is: do we love these kids?” he asked last year. “See, if we feel like because they don’t look like us… that it’s OK if their schools are rundown, or it’s OK if the police are given a mission just to contain them rather than to encourage them, then it’s not surprising that we’re going to lose a lot of them. But that’s not the kind of country I want to live in. That’s not what America is about.”

And they’re off: the couple walking through the White House
And they’re off: the couple walking through the White House

Star power

Jimmy Carter — a one-term president who won a Nobel Peace Prize two decades after leaving office — has laid a path Obama could follow. The President remains hugely popular outside the US, and could aid both diplomatic efforts overseas and responses to humanitarian disasters.

Obama has promised to work on developing young leaders both in the US and internationally, so is expected to build on efforts such as the Young African Leaders Initiative, which gives training to aspiring African civic and political leaders.

There is also high-level speculation that he will fight to improve women’s rights globally. When he visited Kenya he spoke out against female genital mutilation and is rumoured to want to make tackling abuses against women another post-presidency mission.

Support act

In the course of the current campaign Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the strongest weapons in Hillary Clinton’s arsenal, ripping apart Donald Trump in a series of forceful speeches. She’s also been an activist First Lady, mentoring children across the world, including at the Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets. This has led to speculation that the Obamas might follow the Clinton model and switch focus to the other spouse’s ambitions. That could theoretically begin with Michelle running to be mayor of Chicago.

However, Michelle is no Hillary. “I think she hates politics,” the media mogul Tina Brown says. “But people change. When her kids are grown-up she might just think ‘to hell with it’.”

Obama himself has said: “Michelle was never wild about politics. She once explained to me, ‘I tried to organise my life not to have a lot of mess around and politics is just a big mess’.”

Speak for your supper

Obama has an abundance of charm. Not a sleazy, oleaginous charm but a genuine, humour-filled charisma. And he can make people laugh. At his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama walked to the podium to a cover of Cups by Anna Kendrick, with the chorus “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”. He then proceeded to attack Trump. “The Republican establishment… says Donald lacks the foreign policy experience to be President. In fairness, he has spent years meeting with leaders from around the world: Miss Sweden, Miss Argentina, Miss Azerbaijan.” Bill Clinton can bring in six-figure sums for a single speech. Obama should be able to command even more.

The right side of the law

Obama has jokingly suggested he might look at conventional jobs: “I’m going to get on LinkedIn and see what comes up,” he told a recent entrepreneurship summit. A more likely option would be that he heads back to the lecture hall, where he taught law before becoming President. “I love the law, intellectually,” he has said. “I love nutting out these problems, wrestling with these arguments… I miss the classroom and engaging with students.”

In terms of where, the top contenders include Harvard, where he went to law school, the University of Chicago, where he worked, and Columbia, where he studied political science. Columbia’s college president has said he looked forward to “welcoming back our most famous alumnus … in 2017”.

The couple waving from a balcony in Oslo
The couple waving from a balcony in Oslo

Balancing the books

There’s an inevitability to the post-presidential memoir now. Bill Clinton received a $15 million advance for My Life in 2004, and Obama’s is expected to top that, with every publisher fighting to get their hands on it. The agent Andrew Wylie has tipped it to sell for up to $20 million, with Michelle’s going for about $12 million.

But Obama was a best-selling author before he even stepped into the White House, with Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. When he became President in 2008, he was also under contract with Random House to write “a non-fiction book, subject to be determined”. The publisher agreed to put it on hold. Expect more books.

Be a good sport

Obama is a basketball nut and has confessed that he’d love to own part of a professional franchise. “I have fantasised about being able to put together a team and how much fun that would be,” he told GQ. “I think it’d be terrific.” He supports the Chicago Bulls but that probably isn’t a goer: “I know [Bulls owner Jerry] Reinsdorf pretty good. He’s not giving that thing up any time soon.”

Source: Evening Standard