What will the forty-fourth president do after leaving the White House?
Barack Obama recently took a turn as guest editor of the November issue of Wired, the tech magazine at the cutting edge of the digital news cycle. Obama indulged the techno-optimism that animates much of that publication’s editorial board, claiming in his guest column that due to the advances of science and technology over the past few generations, “if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here in America, right now.”
Unsurprising words from a sitting president, perhaps. But cliched or not, Obama’s bold claim isn’t totally off base; as the president notes, crime, teen pregnancy, and poverty rates are all at historic lows, while life expectancy and college education are on the rise. Democratic government and access to education are becoming global norms, while emerging technologies allow for a more interconnected and tolerant world.
Obama is hardly the first to make this case—the Spectator’s Johan Norberg recently marshalled a similar set of facts and figures to argue that we’re living through an unprecedented golden age.
On the merits, these arguments are true enough. But clearly a great many people—especially in the first world—are not feeling the benefits of this new reality, allowing politicians to stoke the flames of resentment and retrenchment. Which suggests why Obama bothered to spend some of his precious final weeks in office writing and editing a tech magazine.
Many have wondered what the forty-fourth president will do after leaving the White House. There’ll be the usual memoirs and a presidential library, of course, but at fifty-five, Obama can still expect to be active in the public square for more than two decades. When asked about his plans for post-presidency, Obama usually offers up some vague niceties about returning to community organising, and “just trying to find ways to help people.”
But the Wired editorial reveals that one of Obama’s main priorities will be to cheer up the public discourse. He’ll dare the electorate to believe that things aren’t really as depressing as they seem, and that America is still capable of big things. If the U.S. ever again attempts a project on the scale of the Space Race, say, expect Obama—not entrenched government bureaucrats or either of two current presidential candidates—to be the one selling the idea to the American public. (In his Wired piece, Obama explicitly mentions galactic exploration and synthetic organ production as two examples of “what might be next.”)
Though he’ll no longer possess the nation’s biggest bully-pulpit, we can expect Obama to pop up here and there and set up his own soapbox—for instance, on the editorial pages of the New York Times, at a Ted Talk bound to go viral, or in a lecture series at Harvard. Don’t expect him to fade into quiet anonymity, like many of his predecessors have chosen to do, but rather watch for him to energetically push his agenda in the court of public opinion. This will undoubtedly also involve lending his star power to a slew of nonprofit organizations. Obama will likely redirect his well-oiled fundraising apparatus to his pet causes, appearing as a frequent VIP on the charity circuit.
In his Wired editorial, Obama wistfully remembers watching Star Trek as a boy and being inspired by the show’s heady utopian belief in cosmic camaraderie. And now Obama, who’s already ‘boldly gone where no man has gone before,’ wants to keep pushing the envelope. Regardless of who replaces him in January 2017, the president’s trademark blend of optimism and idealism will be likely seem a welcome respite from the rage and cynicism of the current campaign.