Obama activism

Could Obama learn from Jimmy Carter about presidential retirement?

I’ve yet to find anyone who shares my feelings, but I was quite uncomfortable with former President Barack Obama’s first public speaking opportunity upon retirement. He was on a panel at the University of Chicago that focused on community activism.

He had been off the public stage for some time and we all knew that he was taking deserved time off for R & R. He had spent part of the time on a yacht in Tahiti as well as palling around with British venturist and billionaire Richard Branson in the Bahamas. He was definitely living “the high life” and the argument that he is entitled to do whatever he wants certainly holds water. But somehow the gap between Chicago community activism and Tahiti seemed too big for me.

As I reflected upon living former Democratic presidents, I could not help but notice the contrast between the lives that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have lived. Yes, both have been very involved in charitable enterprises to help those in need, primarily in Africa, Asia and South America. But Clinton’s work with the Clinton Global Initiative has been very glitzy and with the glitterati. Carter’s work through the Carter Center has been very hands on and with dirty hands. He lives a very unpretentious life back in Atlanta and Plains, GA. He interacts daily with people who live very non-assuming lives and who are well-connected with the struggles that middle and low-income people face in the United States and around the world.

Like so many people, I was taken with Barack Obama when I read Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. This unassuming man was concerned with reaching his own potential while serving the common good. Upon graduating from law school, he passed up opportunities to work on Wall Street and instead worked to serve the people in Chicago who he had previously come to know as a community organizer. He later became a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

As a candidate for president, he initially supported the public financing of campaigns. During his 2008 campaign, he learned that his popularity was not only with grassroots people, but also with large financial interests. For him to maximize revenue for his campaign, it behooved him to take a pass on public financing and instead take as much as he legally could from entrenched sources including Wall Street. When he became president, he took care of Wall Street while also working for the economic and social advances of the middle class and those in poverty.

I can’t help but wonder how Barack Obama’s presidency and possibly his post-presidency would be had there been a strong public financing program in place for running for president, with strict penalties for refusing to take the public route. It is certainly likely that Obama would have had less contact with the moguls of Wall Street. It is possible that during his presidency Wall Street would not have escaped with only one culprit of the 2007-08 economic demise having gone to prison.

Sometimes circumstances cause us to lose our grounding. It’s presumptuous of me or anyone else to claim that we know anyone else’s grounding. What I am comfortable saying is that I would feel better if Barack Obama was more in touch with those with whom he worked on the south side of Chicago than those on the Street. He’s young and his post-presidency cannot be defined in 100 days.

I’m hoping that he takes more pages out of Jimmy Carter’s book and fewer out of Bill Clinton’s.