As President Obama prepares to fly off into history at noon Friday, he won’t be receding as far from the spotlight as most former presidents, with plans to live in Washington and throw himself into a campaign to give Democrats more clout in reshaping congressional districts.
He also hasn’t promised to stay out of President Trump’s hair. Indeed, the departing president with a flair for the long good-bye sent an email to supporters Thursday urging them to stay engaged in “the joyous work of citizenship.”
“I’ll be right there with you every step of the way,” Mr. Obama said.
To many, Mr. Obama’s claim that he longs for some peace and quiet in retirement is ringing hollow.
“Clearly, there’s a lot of reluctance to leave,” said Richard Benedetto, a political science professor at American University and a former White House reporter. “He wants to stay on the scene.”
He said Mr. Obama’s post-presidency is shaping up as “very unusual.”
“The tradition has been that presidents leave Washington at the end of their terms, mainly because they’ve had enough and they feel as though they should get out of the way and give the next person a chance,” Mr. Benedetto said. “But he feels as though his legacy is in danger, and he wants to protect it as best he can. I think he wants to stay in the fight.”
Immediately after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Mr. Obama and his family will fly on a military helicopter from the Capitol to Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland, where he will say good-bye to some of his closest staffers one last time. Then the Obamas will board the presidential aircraft — no longer called Air Force One, the designation reserved for the new president — for a flight to California.
Mr. Obama will spend the first two weeks of the Trump administration vacationing with his family in Palm Springs, the exclusive resort town where he has played many rounds of golf as president.
“He is looking forward to Jan. 21, when he and his wife can hang out and relax, and they can just stay up and talk as late as they want, and he doesn’t have to worry about what’s waiting for him in a big briefing book the next morning,” presidential confidante Valerie Jarrett told GQ magazine.
Presidents usually go away and stay gone once they leave office. George W. Bush retired to his home in Texas, where he took up painting. Ronald Reagan went back to California but faced an Alzheimer’s diagnosis about five years after leaving office.
Bill Clinton was an exception, devoting much of his energy after the White House to the high-profile Clinton Foundation and working on two failed presidential campaigns of his wife, Hillary.
But after the Obamas’ respite in Palm Springs, they will return to a rented home in the District of Columbia’s Kalorama neighborhood within two miles of the White House to spend another 2 years in Mr. Trump’s shadow while their younger daughter, Sasha, completes high school.
As a former president, Mr. Obama says, he wants to write and spend more time with his daughters. A memoir of his White House years is expected to bring him as much as $20 million.
In addition to those quiet pursuits, Mr. Obama will work with former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on a 527 political action group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which was formed this summer. They will raise money and support Democratic gubernatorial and state legislative candidates nationwide with the goal of breaking Republicans’ control of state governments ahead of the next U.S. census and the redrawing of congressional district boundaries in 2021.
“We are quite simply going into the states,” Mr. Holder said in early January. “That strategy starts this year. The revitalization of the progressive movement starts right now.”
Mr. Holder said he and Mr. Obama want to “make redistricting a sexy thing.”
“Coming out every four years and campaigning hard for a presidential candidate is not nearly enough,” he said. “It may not be as sexy as going to big presidential rallies, but [state races] are just as important. I think, with the help of the president of the United States, we’ll do a good job at that.”
Mr. Obama also met this month at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to strategize on the party’s redistricting efforts.
Both parties have refined the tactic of “gerrymandering” congressional districts — Maryland’s twisted 3rd House district, represented by Democrat John Sarbanes, is often cited as one of the worst examples in the nation of boundaries drawn to benefit one political party. But Mr. Obama often blamed gerrymandering for House Republicans’ unwavering opposition to his agenda, saying incumbents in heavily Republican districts had no incentive to work with a Democratic president.
“The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they’re really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies,” Mr. Obama said in 2013.
The president himself reportedly benefited from gerrymandering early in his political career, taking advantage of a redrawn district in Chicago to win a state Senate seat in Illinois, a post that helped him win a U.S. Senate seat in 2004.
Mr. Obama also made clear Wednesday in his final press conference that he is reserving the right to speak out if Mr. Trump takes action to harm the “core values” of America. He said that includes Dreamers, young illegal immigrants whom his administration has granted protection from deportation.
“If I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion — I’d put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise,” Mr. Obama said. “I’d put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me, at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids and send them someplace else when they love this country. The notion that we would just arbitrarily, or because of politics, punish those kids when they didn’t do anything wrong themselves, I think would be something that would merit me speaking out.”
Mr. Benedetto said it’s a case of Mr. Obama “being somewhat petulant that he has to leave.”
“He thinks Trump is going to disrupt his entire legacy, starting with Obamacare,” he said. “He wants to protect it. He sees this election as a rejection, and he wants to prove that he has the ability to come back and be a big player and win something. This was a loss for him as much as it was a loss for Hillary Clinton.”
In his final full day in office, Mr. Obama had no public events. He commuted the prison sentences of another 330 federal inmates convicted of drug charges, bringing his total number of commutations to 1,715, more than the past 13 presidents combined.
The president also had one final lunch with Vice President Joseph R. Biden at the White House, a routine in which they engaged hundreds of times over eight years. He spoke on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his closest international partner, his last call with a world leader.
“Given their eight years of friendship and partnership, the president noted that it was fitting that his final call with a foreign leader was with Chancellor Merkel, and he wished her the very best going forward,” the White House said.
It remains to be seen how often Mr. Obama will weigh in on public controversies, or how effective he will be without the same media megaphone he enjoyed at the White House. He half-joked at his farewell address in Chicago last week that he was already experiencing a taste of what life will be like outside the world’s most powerful office.
As the president urged supporters in the Chicago arena to take their seats, he deadpanned, “You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody’s following instructions.”