WHAT WILL Barack Obama do next? The former president is only 57 and evidently hankers for an active life. He remains a star campaigner who can stir up youthful voters. For evidence of that, consider the standing ovation and cheers he earned from a youthful audience in Chicago on November 19th. In an eloquent, ruminative discussion on stage before a few hundred supporters at a hotel that hosted his Obama Foundation—people drawn from across America and beyond—he set out how he hopes to encourage greater civic engagement.
Mr Obama has several unusual strengths in addition to his celebrity. He is a rare leader in his party who can bridge its progressive and centrist wings. He has proved successful in appealing to even rural places in the Midwest, the sort of areas where Democrats have struggled in recent years. Part of his appeal comes from the fact that he is not deeply rooted in any particular place. (True, he says Chicago represents all of America’s “glory” and “all our warts”, but he adopted the city where Michelle Obama was born and grew up.)
The great task for Democrats in the next 18 months or so is to pick a presidential challenger to President Donald Trump. Will Mr Obama help to shape that choice in public, or again retreat from sight? For most of the past two years he has been largely absent, despite obvious animosity between him and Mr Trump. His reticence combined tradition—presidents generally don’t talk about their successors—with a calculation that he would win over few Trump supporters if he did speak out. But in the past couple of months, Mr Obama switched tactics. He campaigned hard for the Democrats in the mid-terms, spoke at several rallies and attacked Mr Trump by name.
Some of what comes next is clear. Mr Obama is supposed to be writing a memoir, though he admitted with a grimace in Chicago that it is proving difficult to grind out—for every two words he types he says he hits “delete”. (His wife, Michelle, is said to taunt him for it). The Obamas are also involved in commissioning programmes, including documentaries, to be shown on Netflix.
His foundation is beginning to grow. The annual event in Chicago was the second so far. Its focus is less to create a fund-raising machine like the Clintons’ foundation (though Mr Obama is courting donors) and more to create something akin to Jimmy Carter’s centre, which has promoted human rights, public health and a range of good causes for nearly 40 years. David Simas, the CEO of Mr Obama’s outfit, says the goal is to “build a generation” of connected youngsters who can respond as “our civic fabric is tearing apart”.
Some progress is also being made on the Obama Presidential Centre, which will house his official library, archives and museum. A model mock-up and a virtual reality tour show that this will be a striking if rather austere and fortress-like building, a stone and mostly windowless tower in a park in southern Chicago. An architect says Mr Obama wanted a tall structure to represent aspiration and a rising up—and to be a visual landmark for the neighbourhood. Ground is to be broken next year; with the whole thing to be finished by about 2022.
Listening to Mr Obama speak, it sounds like he is most driven by storytelling and abstract argument, rather than partisan politicking. He wants to engineer gradual, social progress over the long term—even as he accepts that is not always possible. He relishes lengthy discussion about the challenges of tackling climate change, low agricultural yields in Africa, the difficulties of troubled urban places such as Chicago’s south side. He says he believes technological solutions exist for many such problems—“people call me Spock for a reason”, he jokes. But the biggest barriers to progress are always social, he says. People are “confused, blind, shrouded by hate, anger, racism, mummy issues…we are fraught”, he says. He does not sound like a man who is yearning for the national spotlight, nor one who wants a high-profile part in Democratic wrangling over the next two years. He sounds, rather, as if he yearns to promote a national healing, greater moderation and compromise. Given the mudslinging in political discourse it will be tough, but, he said, “part of my job now…is to wipe the windshield so people can see clearly.”