I would imagine that leaving the Oval Office after completing a tenure as president leaves a uniquely large professional and personal void in one’s life. What do you do with yourself, knowing that your peak of relevance and power is behind you? One day you are the commander in chief, the head of the executive branch, and the next, you’re just a citizen, waking up in your own bed and trying to figure out what to do with your day. I suspect the transition is jarring – especially when the president is ousted after just one term, like Carter or Bush 41, or if the guy happens to be young, like Clinton or Obama, each of whom exited office in their mid-50s.
How do you derive meaning from the remaining decades of your life after you’ve been president of the United States? How former presidents spend their time out of office can be indicative of their values and priorities.
No one has more experience with a post-presidency life than Jimmy Carter.
Carter was the first man elected president after Richard Nixon’s resignation. Carter, a former submarine officer turned peanut farmer, was a dark horse candidate who won election on account of the contrast his religious and moral views struck with the corrupted and shamed Nixon. Carter was unable to win re-election, however, and he entered his post-presidential life in 1981 at 56 years of age. Remarkably, the guy is still alive, pushing 100 years old. Carter has been an ex-president longer than anyone else in history: 41 years and still counting.
Carter has been notably productive during his four-decade encore. In 1982, he established The Carter Center, a non-profit, nongovernmental organization that promotes democracy, conflict resolution, and fair elections. The Center also works on global health initiatives, such as the control and eradication of diseases like Guinea worm disease, river blindness, malaria, and trachoma. Since 1989, the Carter Center has monitored elections in 38 countries. And since 1986, it has helped to eliminate 99% of the planet’s cases of Guinea worm disease.
Carter himself has also participated in various diplomatic efforts involving countries such as North Korea, Haiti, and Sudan. In short, once removed from the political spotlight and no longer beholden to donors and constituents, Carter spent his time traipsing through Africa and Asia, promoting fair elections, diplomacy, and global health. Accordingly, we can safely conclude that Carter personally values fair elections, diplomacy, and global health.
Donald Trump has barely been out of office for eighteen months, but his actions during that time tell us his true values as well. Granted, Trump is considering a 2024 presidential bid, so voter cultivation is perhaps still an influence on the ex-president’s day-to-day schedule, but mostly, it appears safe to assume we are getting an unfiltered out-of-office version of Trump that offers insights into the inner workings of his mind. At a minimum, we can conclude objectively that Trump craves the spotlight. No ex-president has ever refused to “go away” as stubbornly as Trump. He is still a fixture in everyday politics and an important factor in ongoing primary races. Trump’s grand mission appears to be simply promoting MAGA ideology and MAGA-aligned candidates. Regardless, Trump is quite active – in contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Obama was relatively young when he left office, just 55 years old. Out of office, he’s been pretty quiet politically. Obama endorsed Joe Biden for the 2020 election, but only after Biden emerged as the clear-cut front-runner. Obama’s impact was minimal. Mostly, Obama has hit the speakers circuit, appearing for clients who could afford his $400,000 price tag – meaning he mostly spoke for Wall Street firms. So Obama, relieved of the presidency’s pressures and expectations, began cashing checks from Wall Street. For many, Obama’s speaking engagements harkened to a darker moment in Obama’s presidency: when he bailed out the banks who had helped fund his campaign.
Oh, Obama signed a book deal, too. He received $65,000,000 in advance from Penguin Random House – the biggest advance ever.
In essence, Obama has spent his post-presidency cashing in on his fame and popularity. It should come as no surprise. While Obama was still in office Bloomberg asked him what he was going to do with his life after his term ended.
“The conversations I have with Silicon Valley and with venture capital pull together my interests in science and organization in a way I find really satisfying,” the then-sitting president said. So, rather than follow in Carter’s footsteps, working to eradicate malaria, or in Trump’s footsteps, working to promote a self-centered political ideology, Obama was seriously mulling a pivot into venture capitalism. That Obama would consider such a thing indicates his true values, and it is consistent with criticisms that Obama wasn’t truly progressive but rather a mainstream incrementalist.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.