The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion President Obama, your country needs you

President Biden, Vice President Harris and former president Barack Obama in the East Room of The White House on April 5. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Retirement has been good to Barack Obama.

The 44th president returned to the White House Tuesday for the first time since he left office five years ago. Fit and vigorous, if a bit grayer and more wrinkly, he noted that the return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. meant “I have to wear a tie, which I very rarely do these days.”

Obama has been living his best life, even making a podcast and writing a book with Bruce Springsteen. “I’m a private citizen now,” he reminded the gathering, packed with staffers and legislators who served during his presidency. And though he retains “more than a passing interest in the course of our democracy,” he said, “I’m outside the arena.”

Therein lies the problem. President Obama: Your country needs you. Democracy is on the ropes. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the ship of state, and no one is better able to help the cause than Obama.

Obama’s “outside the arena” phrasing was an inversion of the immortal “Man in the Arena” speech given in 1910 by former president Theodore Roosevelt, whose portrait hangs on the wall of the East Room, where Obama spoke.

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“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,” said Roosevelt, who left the White House but not politics, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again … but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

America desperately needs Obama in the arena — although not necessarily in the Biden White House. The 60-year-old former president’s hour in the East Room brought back the memories of his once-in-a-generation talent, and inevitably invited comparisons to his less charismatic and much older successor. Biden still seemed to be playing Obama’s understudy.

Obama was all smiles, waves, winks, nods and cocked eyebrows to his ebullient fans, whom he shushed after 25 seconds of applause. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” Vice President Harris remarked.

Where Obama was loose, Biden was stiff, standing with hands clasped before him and his lips forming a tight line. “Vice President Biden,” Obama began. Biden stepped forward and saluted. “That was a joke,” Obama felt the need to add.

More jokes followed, in that Obama cadence, and a style that sounded extemporaneous even though he was glancing at a teleprompter. Biden coughed, took out a hankie and discreetly blew his nose.

Obama wasn’t trying to steal the show. He credited Biden’s work on Obamacare, joked about Biden’s “BFD” remark (caught on a hot mic in that very room 12 years ago) and led the crowd in a standing ovation for Biden twice as long as Obama’s.

“Feels like the good old days,” Biden said, beginning a speech that was, as usual, serviceable, with the occasional struggle over a word, the squinting at the teleprompter, the puzzling aside, the stage whisper. The White House arranged for Biden to sign an executive order, but even there Biden played second fiddle to “the president,” as he still calls Obama. “One thing I haven’t gotten down: Barack Obama could sign his name using nine different pens,” Biden marveled.

After the signing, Obama worked the room with bear hugs and backslaps. “I’m going to go say hi to people — I’ll circle around,” he told the current president, who seemed more eager to leave. At one point, Biden appeared to reach for Obama’s arm but failed to get his attention.

Democrats shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking things would be better now if only Obama were in charge. For all his political skill, he was savaged in 2010 by demonization, disinformation and reflexive opposition similar to what Biden faces today. “There was a lot of misinformation, to say the least,” Obama recalled Tuesday, adding with understatement that “it’s fair to say that most Republicans showed little interest in working with us to get anything done.”

“Our Republican colleagues,” Biden concurred later, “haven’t changed a whole hell of a lot.”

Indeed, they’ve gotten worse. Republicans are now taking aim at democracy itself, rejecting the results of an election, condoning a violent insurrection in the Capitol (“legitimate political discourse”) and rolling back voting rights. “These partisan attempts at voter nullification are unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times, and they represent a profound threat to the basic democratic principle that all votes should be counted fairly and objectively,” Obama himself wrote earlier this year in USA Today, concluding that “America’s long-standing grand experiment in democracy is being sorely tested.”

Obama hasn’t been entirely silent; he stumped in Virginia for Terry McAuliffe and spoke to House Democrats, for example. But as a celebrated former president, and the first Black president, he’s in an unrivaled position to mobilize Americans in defense of democracy. This is no time to be outside the arena.