Will Obama Return to Politics?

8 min read

Return to Politics

Former President Barack Obama is arguably the most popular living former president. Not only is he a global presence with a tremendous youth following, he is also still relatively young by political standards. He can offer many more years of public service through the Democratic Party. Although it is likely that he will not return to public office anytime soon, the door isn’t closed. Though Obama cannot run for a third presidential term, Obama has many options that could bring him back into International Politics, including the White House. He is young and has plenty of time to evaluate his options for the future.

Obama has not signaled a return to the public stage. The chances are slim that he will return to politics in the near future. With numerous projects including speaking engagements, a deal with Netflix to produce TV content, and book deal with Penguin Random House to publish his presidential memoirs, he is keeping himself pretty busy. However, there are appealing high-profile political positions our former president may consider further down the road if given the opportunity.

Speaker of the House

Return to Politics
Photo Source: Peter J. Souza, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons, Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Though Speaker of the House does not place Obama back in the White House, it does place him in the most powerful political position outside of the White House, if the Democratic Party maintains control of the House of Representatives. It also places him 2nd in line behind the Vice President in the line of succession should anything hinder the sitting president’s ability to complete his/her term in office.  He could run for Congress.  Obama’s residence is in Chicago, Illinois.  This places him within the 1st Congressional District of Illinois. This Congressional seat is currently held by Bobby Rush who is in his 70s and would likely retire.  Obama could run for this open seat and win. If the Democrats continue to control the House of Representatives, Obama could be elected Speaker of the House. There are no restrictions for former Presidents to hold other offices. In fact, our sixth President, John Quincy Adams, went on to serve nine terms in Congress after losing his re-election bid in 1828. Given his experience in the White House, he would provide excellent leadership and control for many years, as Speaker.

Secretary of State

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Photo Source:  kremlin.ru photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Anyone can be appointed to a White House Cabinet position by the sitting president under the consent of the US Senate. There is nothing in the US Constitution that prohibits a former president from serving as a cabinet member.  In fact, there is no mention of a cabinet in the US Constitution.  What’s more, you don’t need to be a US Citizen to serve as a cabinet member. All Obama would need is an appointment from the sitting president and a Senate confirmation.

There are pros and cons to accepting such a role. Let’s talk about the pros first.  Obama needs no introduction and his influence over world leaders is unmistakable because he is a former US President.  He has established relationships with most countries and his international star-power would provide the media power to bring world leaders to the table.  As for the cons, it’s never a good thing to upstage the current president. More than a few uncomfortable moments would be expected for the sitting president and Obama, especially with media attention more focused on Obama’s record on in international policies during his former presidency, than on his record as Secretary of State under the sitting president.  Obama would have high expectations to meet given his legacy in world politics, which may not be met due to the limits of the position. He would also find himself in plenty of situations where the sitting president’s policies are in stark contrast to the policies he pushed for during his own presidency. He would be working at the pleasure of the sitting president to help shape world politics to fit the sitting president’s legacy on world politics at the risk of erasing his own.  Though he considers a loyal, centered Democrat, it is a lot of pride to swallow.

Vice President

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September 16, 2010 President Barack Obama fist pumps Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House photo, Obama White House Archive, photo by Pete Souza)

There is the scenario where Obama can be asked to run for Vice President under a Biden-Obama ticket. There would be much debate as to whether or not Obama would qualify to run based on qualifications. Since he is qualified to run for president and vice president under the 12th Amendment, this should not be an issue. If we were to consider term limits because of potential succession, the 22nd Amendment only prohibits a third term by way of election, not succession.

Though it is unlikely, there is always the possibility Joe Biden will ask Barack Obama to be his running mate.  This is where Barack would make a much more meaningful impact. This is because Joe and Barack have very similar views. Much of Joe Biden’s national and international views were shaped during the Obama Administration. They both have centrist views and they have a very close relationship.  Barack would want nothing more than to help Joe Biden secure the 2020 election. If there is anyone Barack would prefer to work for and with, it would be Biden based off the nature of their longstanding personal and professional relationship.

An Obama Vice Presidential pick could help Biden win the 2020 election, but there are drawbacks like anything else.  First, there is the controversy that will surround the Vice-Presidential nomination, mostly from critics and the opposition. Biden will also be hard-pressed to convince the voters in the general election that he is his own man and that he won’t be a puppet to a new Obama administration.  Many would argue that President George W. Bush suffered legitimacy concerns during his presidency because Vice President Dick Cheney was perceived to have full control over White House policy.  In addition to having star-power, much of the world media will focus on Obama’s influence on Biden’s policies.  This would not only severely hamper Biden’s ability to create his own legacy but could hamper his chances for re-election if voters decide they don’t want yet another 4 years of Biden and Obama.

There is also the constitutional question about the qualification to run for vice president. This scenario of a former two-term president running for vice president was discussed before. Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell, actually wrote about this in 2000 to argue how Clinton could run for Vice President under an Al Gore-Bill Clinton Presidential ticket. He stated:

“The Constitution permits Clinton to be elected vice-president, and if necessary to ascend for a third time to the presidency as careful attention to the language of the 12th and 22nd Amendments shows.

The 12th Amendment would allow a Clinton vice-presidency. Its language only bars from the vice-presidency those persons who are “ineligible to the office” of President. Clinton is not ineligible to the office of president, however. He is only disqualified (by the 22nd Amendment) from being elected to that office.

This is no mere semantic distinction. Article II of the Constitution carefully defines exactly who is ‘eligible to the Office of President’: anyone who is a natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, and has been a U.S. resident for at least 14 years.”

Then there is the constitutional question about Obama’s ability to hold the office for a third term, if Biden were unable to complete his term as president. As Vice President, Obama would take over as Commander-in-Chief once again by way of succession.  The 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution clearly states that a president can only be elected twice to the Office of President and only elected once if the person acted as President, by way of succession, for more than two years of a term. No person can be elected for a second term if they held the office for more than two years of another president’s term prior to being elected for a first term. This makes the person ineligible to run for a second term if being elected for a second term means they will hold office for more than 10 years:

“No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.”

The key word in the 22nd Amendment is “elected.” Nowhere are the terms succession or appointment mentioned in the 22nd Amendment. Therefore, he could serve a third term and there would be no constitutional crisis if Biden should not be able to complete his term as President. Obama is no stranger to Constitutional law. He was a professor of constitutional law while teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.

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May 27, 2009 President Barack Obama greets Nellis Airmen and civilian attendees after his speech about the America Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 at the Thunderbird Hanger, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lawrence Crespo)

Though it is possible that a third term would be challenged in court, the courts would more than likely rule in favor of a third term because the authors of the 22nd Amendment were specific when they wrote “elected” in the 22nd Amendment. In 1969, in the case of Powell v. McCormack, the US Supreme Court ruled that [Congress] could only set qualification limits on federally held offices to those qualifications which are expressly set forth in the Constitution. This ruling was reaffirmed in 1995 by the US Supreme Court in the case of US Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton. The highest court in the land has consistently a “fixed” interpretation of the Constitution that cannot be added to or interpreted in any way other than what is clearly stated as it pertains to qualifications to hold federal office.

Making the Case for A Possible Return to Politics

While it is unlikely that Obama would run for office and even more unlikely that he would ever end up serving a third term, it is not out of the realm of reality that he would return to political life. In addition to being relatively young and having served for a total of 20 years as an elected official including his 8 years as President, he still has plenty of years left to serve in some capacity.

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June 14, 2013 “The President called me over to pose for a photo with a young boy who had fallen asleep during the Father’s Day ice cream social in the State Dining Room of the White House.” (Official White House Obama Archive Photo by Pete Souza)

The Democratic Party needs to look outside the box for star power if they want to retake the White House. Obama is an obvious choice. In addition to his experience in world politics as a White House insider, he is also arguably very popular, and the most popular president among young voters to date in American history. A 2018 survey by the American Political Science Association ranked Obama as the 8th greatest American President, up from 18th in 2014, according to a 2018 New York Times article. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, Obama was listed as the “best president [of their lifetime]” among Millennials. Though Reagan was listed the best president among the Generation-Xers, Obama came in close 2nd, just ahead of Bill Clinton who took the number 3 spot.

Making the Case Against A Possible Return to Politics

There is a case to be made against a return to politics from both Obama’s perspective and the Democratic Party. Star power, experience and popularity alone do not win elections. Take for example, Hillary Clinton. Arguably, Mrs. Clinton had tremendous star power, experience and popularity.  She lived with and undoubtedly counseled President Clinton during his 8 years in office, so she has oval office experience. She had international political experience as Secretary of State under Barack Obama’s administration. She also, like Obama is centrist in her political position.  Yet, with all of her extensive White House experience, popularity, endorsements, and SuperPAC money, she lost the 2016 election to a political newcomer. In a climate where political incumbents are losing to newcomers, there is little doubt people want more than just political star power. Obama may be popular and experienced, but it just may not be enough to help the Democratic Party win more elections. Obama would have much to lose and not very much to gain by returning to politics. He achieved the highest elected office in the land and there isn’t much left to aspire to from there.

Anything Is Possible

The 2016 election proved to be on the stranger side of US elections history, but it is certainly not the only election riddled in controversy. The 2020 election will undoubtedly be interesting in its own right.  Regardless of whether Obama decides to return to politics, expect to see more of him in some capacity as we get closer to the primaries and election night. We will likely see Obama on the campaign trail supporting Joe Biden.

Though he may not return to politics this next go-around, any return to politics at all shouldn’t be written off.  His endorsements and public appearances could create a new surge in popularity among the general voters, especially among new voters who recently turned 18. If they do, it could ignite reconsideration for Obama down the road. Any elected or appointed political position he would consider has its pros and cons. Only time will tell if we ever see Obama in politics again. For now, Obama fans can at least look forward to reading his presidential memoirs. ·

Fred Romero Fred is the CEO of a prominent large New York City-based non-profit. He obtained a master's degree from Columbia University School of Social Work and a master's degree from CUNY Baruch College Zicklin School of Business.

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