On Saturday Barack Obama celebrated his 60th birthday on Martha’s Vineyard, at his $11.75 million mansion, with family, longtime friends from Hawaii, and boldface names like John Legend, who sang “Happy Birthday” to a tent full of attendees. The party was significantly scaled down from original plans, according to the former president’s office, because of the delta variant of the coronavirus, and occurred outdoors following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol — though social media showed glimpses of a rollicking bash. At one point Obama, wearing white slacks and a beaded necklace, danced onstage under the tent to a live performance of “Birthday B----” by Florida recording artist Trap Beckham, who swapped in “Prez” for “B----.”
A snippet of Instagram video shared by musician Erykah Badu showed an ex-president at ease. Obama had the grin (and the moves) of a retired dad enjoying a bit of hoopla.
More broadly, as the 44th president enters his seventh decade, friends and associates describe him as personally content, politically worried but unfailingly optimistic. He is relieved that the American people denied President Donald Trump a second term, but animated by what he views as an assault on voting rights happening at the state level. For all the pandemic’s trials and terrors, he was delighted to have his daughters at home — “like making up for lost time,” one confidante says — and he binge-watched TV series that he’d missed while in office (including the Odenkirk oeuvre of “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”).
He’s listening to new Migos, old Rihanna and older Joni Mitchell. He recently read novels by Kazuo Ishiguro and Rumaan Alam. He spent part of his birthday week reviewing and signing off on the list of Obama Foundation scholars for the coming academic year at the University of Chicago.
This weekend the waterfront lawn of the 29-acre Obama estate was filled with party tents. Commemorative napkins were embossed with “44X60” in shiny gold color.
Barack and Michelle — normally discreet residents of the island, tucked down their own sandy cul-de-sac, three leafy miles outside the WASPy nest of central Edgartown, Mass. — were allowing themselves some conspicuous fun after a tense few years for the country.
“They’re in a very good place,” says close friend Valerie Jarrett, a former White House senior adviser. “Over the 30 years I’ve known them, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as happy as they are now. To not have the responsibilities of office but still have an extraordinarily important platform is the best of all worlds. They’re free, but people still care a great deal about what they say and do.”
A post-presidency is its own kind of office, term-limited only by death, and held at any given time by few men, each with their own ideas of how to wield a more abstract kind of power. After their presidencies, George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower were recommissioned into the armed forces, though this was symbolic and short-lived. Some ex-presidents joined other branches of government: John Quincy Adams spent 17 years of his post-presidency serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, and William Howard Taft lumbered from the Oval Office to the chief justice’s seat on the Supreme Court.
Jimmy Carter, who has been out of office for 40 years, invented the modern post-presidency, according to historian Nicole Hemmer, as a sustained, ambitious and visible commitment by a private citizen to public service.
Obama has done the typical post-presidential things: laboring over his memoirs (he still owes his publisher a second volume) and overseeing his foundation, which will break ground this autumn on a presidential center and museum on the South Side of Chicago. But Obama also commands his media fiefdom, with his wife as partner, in a way that no other ex-president has. In February, Obama launched a podcast with Bruce Springsteen on Spotify and, with Michelle, announced a new slate of film and series projects from their production company Higher Ground, which is partnered with Netflix. Their stated goals are to amplify American stories — “Crip Camp” charted the disability rights movement and “American Factory” won an Oscar for its depiction of postindustrial life in small-town Ohio — and strengthen American values in the culture.
“I think it speaks to changes in the media, but also in the way he understands media’s relationship to political change,” says Hemmer, an associate research scholar for the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University.
Judging by the character of his content, Obama still views himself as a storyteller, as a keeper of the flame of hope. The stone facade of his presidential center will contain words from his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery: “Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
“I’m the yes-we-can man,” Obama said to his wife last summer, as they ruminated on her podcast about the dangers of cynicism during Trump’s final year.
“I’m the hope guy,” he said to Springsteen on an April episode of “Renegades,” a series of corny but sincere conversations about the beauty, pain and future of the American experiment.
“I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America,” he said in his presidential memoir’s preface, written in the chaotic summer of 2020, and so his post-presidency consists of both macro and micro thinking: bending that moral arc of the universe while making deliberate interventions on solid earth.
Obama, a long-term thinker on issues like gerrymandering, has been fixed recently on more immediate needs, such as efforts to sow doubt in elections and make it harder to vote. In June he spoke to 20,000 people during a telephonic town hall to support the For the People Act, a voting rights bill that was up for consideration in the Senate, and to tout the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by his good friend Eric Holder, the former attorney general.
“Since I left office, I’ve tried to make it a policy not to weigh in on the day-to-day scrum in Washington,” Obama told listeners. But “we can’t wait until the next election because if we have the same kinds of shenanigans that brought about January 6th — if we have that for a couple more election cycles — we’re going to have real problems in terms of our democracy, long term.”
David Axelrod, a former longtime senior adviser, thinks Obama has been more active in his post-presidency than he himself anticipated, given the nature and volume of national crises. Michelle has often been by his side, or working the same issue from another angle. In the run-up to the midterm elections in 2018, she hyped voter participation through When We All Vote, her turnout initiative, while he campaigned for specific candidates. About a year ago Obama turned his eulogy for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) into a critique of the filibuster and an endorsement of equal representation for residents of Puerto Rico and D.C. Following the insurrection both he and Michelle issued their own blistering condemnations that ended with a very Obamian refrain.
“The work of putting America back together” requires “each of us to do our part,” Michelle wrote in a tweet.
“It’s up to all of us as Americans, regardless of party,” to help “restore a common purpose to our politics,” Obama wrote in his.
“While he is an apostle of hope he’s not a naive apostle of hope,” Axelrod says. “He sees the challenges. And it concerns him. So he’s just not of a mind to retreat and enjoy the rewards of a life well spent.”
While doing research for his new three-part HBO documentary "Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union," Peter Kunhardt found an old interview in which Obama, then a new president, was already thinking past his time in office.
“Early on in an interview he mused that it was his post-presidency that he most looked forward to,” Kunhardt says. “I think that’s telling. He gets along great with people, but at the same time, he doesn’t. To be freed of the obligation of all the interpersonal negotiations he was faced with must be a relief.”
An ex-president doesn’t have to battle Mitch McConnell, or play nice with the press, or answer to anybody but himself. He can be a podcaster. He can play a round of golf without critics squawking in protest. He can become a strategic partner with NBA Africa, “to promote opportunity, wellness, equality, and empowerment across the continent,” according to the National Basketball Association’s announcement July 27.
The first Black president is, naturally, the first Black ex-president. Last year Obama publicly shared conversations he had with Black friends about their “anguish” over the murder of George Floyd. His foundation, which runs youth leadership programs on multiple continents, continues the work of My Brother’s Keeper, which Obama launched in 2014 to bridge gaps in opportunity for boys and young men of color.
Gabrielle Harris, national president of the College Democrats of America, was in third grade when Obama was elected, and she remembers him first as a symbol. Now, in his post-presidency, she views him as a more relatable leader whose past efforts inform present ones.
The Obamas are “really paying attention to and guiding and being mentors for youth,” says Harris, 21. “I think a lot of young people see Barack Obama as a historic president that they knew and respected so much. In his post-presidency, at least in the realm of young political people, there’s a lot of dissecting of his administration and respectful critiquing of his time in office. What are the changes from the Obama administration to the Biden administration? Is there more pressure we should have put on President Obama that we can put on President Biden and Vice President Harris?”
The last vice president to follow his ticket mate into the Oval Office was George H.W. Bush 32 years ago, but Bush did not have the same type of relationship with Ronald Reagan as Biden does with Obama. They and their two families remain close.
Obama “has been available and engaged every step of the way: campaign, transition, presidency,” says Anita Dunn, senior adviser to Biden. “He was someone I know the president spoke to before he made his decision on Afghanistan,” and “he has really helped address one of our huge concerns, which is how do you communicate to younger people” about the vaccine.
Biden spent this past weekend at home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., but sent a happy-birthday video message that was played for attendees at Saturday’s party in Martha’s Vineyard.
The “greatest gift” we can give “all of our children and grandchildren is a nation and world worthy of their dreams and talents,” Biden said in the video. “That’s what you did and continue to do.”
Obama’s initial birthday plans caused a snit, in the press and on Martha’s Vineyard. The party was originally supposed to be larger, with hundreds of people jetting in with their germs as the delta variant sweeps the country. The New York Times fixated on the shifting invite list (Axelrod and Larry David: out! Jay-Z and Beyoncé: still in!) and reported a contagion of hurt feelings. The Times said Oprah declined to attend, but the Daily Mail said Oprah was indeed on the island, as if the universe hinges on Oprah’s whereabouts (which it might!). The president’s office reiterated that the outdoor event was compliant with covid protocols, and that party favors included masks. But on Saturday Obama — enjoying one of the perks of being an ex-president — was accountable only to his guests.
“The production, the sound, the lights, the staff, the food, the drinks — like, man, epic. Epic, epic, man,” attendee T.J. Chapman, a music manager, said on his Instagram account in the wee hours of Sunday, adding: “Y’all never seen Obama like this in your life. . . . The party of all parties.”