How did the most ubiquitous man in America for eight years virtually disappear? Over the course of his presidency, Obama cast himself as the country’s secular minister as much as its commander-in-chief, someone who understood the moral core of the nation and felt compelled to insist that we live up to it. What explains his near absence from the political stage, where he might argue publicly against the reversals of his policy accomplishments, and also from American life more broadly? What is keeping him from speaking more frequently about the need to protect democratic norms and the rule of law, to be decent people? Where is the man who cried after Sandy Hook and sang in Charleston, who after each mass shooting tried to soothe an outraged nation, who spoke of American values in his travels across the globe? And, tactically, what is behind the relative silence of one of the most popular figures alive just as American politics appears to so many to be on the brink of breaking?
Earlier this month, weeks after news first came out of thousands of immigrant children being held apart from their parents at the border, and after Laura Bush had published an article excoriating her party’s policy, Obama and his team chose to make a rare foray into the news cycle. First, they decided that Michelle should take the lead, and she did so by retweeting Bush’s article approvingly (“Sometimes truth transcends party”). That received a further retweet from Barack, in a bid to keep the conversation about families rather than about politics — as he calculated it would have been had he weighed in directly. Two days later, with the crisis dominating the national news, Obama’s advisers saw an opportunity in World Refugee Day to issue a statement of his own that focused on American values rather than Trump-administration policy. It was an eloquent call for empathy. It was also, to Democrats desperate for him to break post-presidential precedent, the very least he could have done.
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