WASHINGTON – Throughout his time in office, President Obama has opened many outside-the-Beltway speeches with a suggestion that he, too, feels like an outsider in the nation’s baffling, frustrating capital city. He shouts to the audience about how good it is to be wherever he is that day – Cleveland, Miami, San Francisco. Then he takes pokes at the town where great success in his chosen profession has brought him.
“It is good to be out of Washington,” he often says – a line that, in good times and in bad, always generates warm, sympathetic applause.
Changing Washington may not have come off as Obama promised. But for the president and his supporters, the city has been an object of contempt they can believe in.
Now, though, Obama has raised the possibility that he might remain a resident of the capital after his lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. expires in January 2017.
In an interview this week with Barbara Walters of ABC News, Obama and the first lady, Michelle, said they may live in Washington beyond their time in the White House to allow their younger daughter, Sasha, to graduate from Sidwell Friends School.
Sasha would be a high school sophomore at the end of the president’s second term, giving the family a couple of years to enjoy, or endure, Washington as private citizens.
“We gotta make sure that she’s doing well … until she goes off to college,” Obama told Walters, according to an advance transcript of the interview, which aired Friday night. “Sasha will have a big say in where we are.”
For a couple who celebrate the city of Chicago as often as they skewer Washington’s nasty political culture, the suggestion that they may stick around past the constitutionally mandated time is surprising. And it highlights the reality that despite the cloistered and well-supported lifestyle of the American presidency, the Obamas are in some ways working parents who face a set of decisions not unfamiliar to others their age.
Obama would be the first former president to remain in Washington post-presidency since the dying Woodrow Wilson more than nine decades ago. A former president is an easy political target, and to stay in Washington is to be a close-range one as well. The journey from leader of the free world to the person most to blame for the early problems of a new administration is as short as a walk across Lafayette Square.
Most find it best to be far from the scene of the alleged crimes when the accusations start flying. George W. Bush, who moved back to Texas and began painting, was relatively well-served by that distance when Obama pointed often to his predecessor as the cause of the economic and fiscal problems his administration faced early on.
Sticking around is “a terrible idea and I can’t imagine it will last very long,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.
“Once you’re in Washington you are somehow connected to every problem that your predecessor is going to be confronting. And you will be asked to say something each time your name comes up, given that you will have reporters camping out on your doorstep.”
This, in part, is the reason many former presidents don’t flee just Washington, but public life entirely.
Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson vanished onto beloved ranches in California and Texas, the former to enjoy his last years in a pretty valley north of Santa Barbara and the latter to lament what might have been if not for Vietnam.
As for the Obamas, “they are still trying to figure it out,” said Josh Earnest, the White House principal deputy press secretary. Earnest said the decision will likely be made late in the president’s term and pivots largely on Sasha, who is 12 and in seventh grade. Malia, 15, a high school sophomore, will have left for college by then.