At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves: Barack Obama would make a pretty damn good ex-president.
We're not saying he should become an ex-president after just four years in office—only that this line of thinking isn't premature. With the economy uncertain and ever more Americans occupying Main Street, the latest polls show Obama has about a coin flip's chance of winning another term in office—or of being plunged, just 13 months from now, into the most exclusive retirement club on earth.
So it's worth considering: what would his next act look like? If defeated, Obama would become, at 51, the youngest former president in more than a century. (Only Teddy Roosevelt was younger: he was 50 when he left office in 1909.) With strong health and an agile mind--and no shortage of ways to make staggering sums of money--Obama would have the time and skills to mount one of the most impressive ex-presidencies on record. And if history is a guide, the worse Obama fares as commander in chief, the better he might shine as ex-commander in chief. "It may sound whimsical, but it's true," says historian Richard Norton Smith. An administration that ends badly creates an equal and opposite zeal for rehabilitating a legacy, says Smith.
Example A is Jimmy Carter. Fired after four years of stagflation and malaise, the former peanut farmer reinvented the office of the ex-presidency, thrusting himself into world diplomacy, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Richard Nixon is well regarded by historians for his voluminous output of foreign-policy books while in exile. And the consensus best ex-president of the last 100 years is Herbert Hoover. The man who ushered in the Great Depression later became an honored statesman and helped Europe not starve after World War II. "There are striking parallels between one-term presidents, highly unpopular, who went on to achieve not a conventional political luster but a public respect bordering on veneration for the nonpolitical work that they undertook," Smith says.
For Obama, losing would surely burn. "You have a terrible narcissistic wound when you lose an election. You feel rejected," says Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst and author of Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. But for the country's first African-American president, a place in the history books is already assured, and further amplified by landmark health-care legislation and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Once he got over the embarrassment of defeat, he would likely find that life in what Hoover called "that most exclusive trade union" isn't all that bad.
For one thing, the money's unreal. The $191,300 presidential pension is a pittance compared with the paid-speaking circuit, where Bill Clinton has raked in a reported $75 million since leaving the White House. As a gifted orator, Obama could milk this angle for decades. Book deals—another area where he's no slouch—lard on further millions. Building a presidential library and museum will also be a primary focus whenever Obama leaves office. He'll be on hand to meet standing ex-presidential obligations, like attending foreign funerals, and his endorsement—barring a total electoral repudiation--will be the most powerful in the Democratic Party.
As an ex-first lady, Michelle Obama would also find a degree of freedom and have the potential to be a new kind of stateswoman. It might even be her chance to become, for the first time, the more visible Obama. "Would the president see a postpresidency as payback time for his wife, as Bill Clinton has—a time to let her take the lead?" says Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter and author of the forthcoming book The Obamas. "I can absolutely imagine her as a TV personality. It would be a more natural fit for her in many ways than political life."
Which would leave Barack ... a stay-at-home dad? Below, this and other possibilities for a post-White House life.
Paid speaking engagements are a virtual ATM that can fund anything else Obama wants to do in life. It seems a foregone conclusion that Obama, whose campaign speeches electrified the nation in 2008, will keep the oratorical magic alive after he leaves office. The first step is signing with an agency. "The Washington Speakers Bureau, the Harry Walker Agency in New York City-they're all going to get into the biggest bidding war ever," says Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush. "So he'll be rich. And happy." Obama earns a $400,000 annual salary now. As a private citizen behind a lectern, he could make more than that per hour, speaking to universities, corporate conferences, and other elite gatherings.
Superhigh fees, though, create political pitfalls. Ronald Reagan drew intense criticism for accepting $2 million for a pair of speeches in Japan in 1989. Bill Clinton was lambasted for his first postpresidential speech, at a Morgan Stanley conference in Florida, for which he was paid more than $100,000, as it came amid furor over his pardon of donor Marc Rich.
While Obama could command stratospheric rates, given his prestige and silver tongue, the safer course is to take it slow, says Bill Leigh, whose Leigh Bureau has represented paid speakers for more than 80 years. "There's a tendency of people leaving Washington to say, 'I wanna get mine, right now.' It doesn't maximize revenue or reputation."
What would he do with all that dough? Build a compound in Hawaii? An ownership stake in his beloved Chicago Bulls? More likely for the serious-minded Obama: plowing the money back into his new foundation (see below).
Annual Earnings: $10 million or more
Likelihood: Very high
"Obama has spent almost all of his adult life working at an urban university-either as a student or as adjunct professor of law," says historian Michael Beschloss. "Thus it is hard to imagine an ex-president Obama who is not, in some sense, teaching."
Would Obama want to run a university? Several prestigious schools have vacancies at the top, like Brown. A bolder move for Obama, though, would be to create his own teaching forum at his presidential library. These facilities have gotten bigger with each successive president-George W. Bush has already raised more than $300 million for his-and given that Obama hasn't exactly shied away from lavishness in the past (recall his 2008 convention speech in a football stadium), it's fair to wonder if the eventual library could include an Obama University—esque extension. Possible symposia: "In Defense of Compromise"; "Roots of the Economic Meltdown, 2001—08."
Either way, he would have a chance to create a facility unlike those of his predecessors. "Right off, you'd have to merge the Internet campaign with the Internet generation," says Cathy Trost of the Newseum. "?'Participatory' is key. Just as the news business is widening the definition of who is a journalist, museums are widening the definition of who is a curator." Look for it in Chicago, Obama's adopted hometown and an academic hub.
Annual Earnings: $0
Likelihood: Hard to say
White House alums have long heeded the siren call of the corporate board to cash in on their prestige. In exchange for attending a few dry meetings and letting CEOs name-check them at parties, high-profile politicians can bank hundreds of thousands of dollars by taking on a "director" title. Gerald Ford was elected to the board of the National Association of Securities Dealers in 1999, while Apple paid Al Gore $1.2 million in 2010 alone.
For a recession-era president like Obama, navigating the shoals of corporate cash would be tricky. Economist Paul Kedrosky says he might want to avoid private-equity firms and multinational conglomerates that evoke anti-Wall Street sentiment. "It's more likely he ends up with the Silicon Valley crowd," says Kedrosky. "Growth-oriented tech companies would like the younger, hipper ex-president" attached to their brands. Possibilities include behemoths Apple and Google, but if he's looking for a hometown horse to bet on, fast-growing Groupon is based in Chicago. And as Facebook prepares for a $10 billion IPO, Mark Zuckerberg could come knocking.
Annual Earnings: $1.2 million
Likelihood: Possible, but remote
As they reap the benefits of their outsize earning power, ex-presidents are expected to channel some of the cash flow they attract toward meaningful philanthropic projects. "I think most of us have pursued the causes that have occupied us most when we were in the White House," says former president Jimmy Carter. Philanthropy is also where ex-presidents seek to redeem themselves from in-office blunders. After the Clinton administration let genocide and famine go unchecked in Rwanda and Somalia, for example, the Clinton Foundation brought Bill back to the region with billions of dollars in aid. And the Clinton Global Initiative sometimes seems to overshadow the U.N. with its high-profile world-saving missions, projected to total nearly $70 billion so far.
If he loses reelection, the rap on Obama will be that he failed to revive a floundering economy. A "Yes We Can Foundation" could help redefine how Americans remember him-but it's unclear what tack he would take. His personal passions are hard to pinpoint, perhaps because he has spent so much of his term putting out fires, like the debt-ceiling debacle. When it comes to pet causes, observers are mostly left guessing: Carter thinks Obama might focus his attention on improving American relations in Asia. Beschloss envisions a more domestic agenda. "One could easily imagine him starting a foundation or institute that might address health care," he says.
Annual earnings: $0
Likelihood: High (once he figures out a cause)
Four former presidents have resought the White House (and more have tested the waters). Only Grover Cleveland, in 1892, succeeded. Would Obama do the same? Born in 1961, he could be a viable candidate not just in 2016 but, theoretically, in any election through the 2030s. "It's less driven by his age, and more by the margin of defeat," says Fleischer. A landslide loss in November 2012 would rule him out forever. "But if it's a close loss," Fleischer says, "Barack Obama is gonna get asked regularly: 'Are you running?' 'Will you rule out running?' 'Has he been Shermanesque yet?'?"
If Obama were tempted to campaign again in 2016-and here the hypotheticals really begin to pile up, although they are intriguing-the primary battle could be every bit as pitched as a general-election rematch. Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly refused to rule out a run, telling NBC this month, "I am never ready to close the door on anything." And there's always the possibility of another Hillary Clinton candidacy. The secretary of state said in October that she would not run again for president, but her husband enjoys fanning the flames of speculation. "You'll have to ask her," he said this fall. "If she wants to come home, I'll be happy. If she wants to serve, I'll be happy. But she has to decide that." Clinton would be 69 in November 2016; Biden would be 73. Obama? Just 55.
Annual Earnings: $400,000
Likelihood: Don't count on it
Early in the 2008 race, pundits liked to muse that once in office, President Hillary Clinton could appoint the engaging young black guy from Illinois to the Supreme Court. And there has always been a notion among the chattering classes that Obama-who logged more than a decade teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago-is better suited temperamentally for the judiciary than the executive branch. A devout wonk and nuanced thinker who occasionally betrays disdain for the political process, Obama could use a judgeship to retreat from partisan warfare while still maintaining influence. And given his talent for strong prose, his written opinions could quickly become greatest hits for the law-school set. So could the Supremes one day welcome a Justice Obama?
"It's not a crazy idea," says Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. "There is a long history of elected officials being named to the Supreme Court ... and Obama himself has said he thinks that tradition should be revived."
There's a precedent: President William Howard Taft served as chief justice for nine years. But Obama's political experience doesn't make confirmation a sure bet. "The process is so partisan, he doesn't have the traditional qualifications, and you know Republicans are out to get the guy," says Toobin.
Of course, Obama would have to wait for another Democrat to occupy the Oval Office before he appeared on any shortlists (most likely to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg). But even in 2017, he'd still be young enough to give decades to the court. After all, he's stopped smoking.
Annual Earnings: $213,900
Likelihood: Long shot
On a publisher's list of most coveted American authors, where would ex-president Barack Obama rank? "Most. Coveted," says Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp. "I've thought a lot about this. I don't think there's anyone else."
Obama was a bestselling author even before his inauguration, first with his memoir, Dreams From My Father, and then The Audacity of Hope. He has a deal with Crown to write another nonfiction book when his term is up, for an undisclosed amount. Editors have been loath to speculate openly about what price Obama's deal would bring. But with his proven appeal and decades of literary productivity ahead of him, Obama could very likely top the reported $15 million Bill Clinton got for his memoir, My Life, or the $7 million George W. Bush is said to have received for his Decision Points.
To make a big media rollout bigger, Obama would do well to follow the multiplatform lead of Al Gore, who packages his books with documentaries, iPad apps, and viral Internet campaigns. Obama isn't limited to the standard postpresidential fare of memoirs, correspondence, and children's books, either. Given his authorial skills, Obama could write about everything from the law to cultural affairs to basketball. "I can assure you," Karp says, "that I would stand on line overnight to buy the first copy of The Audacity of Hoop."
Potential Earnings: $15 million or higher
Likelihood: Very high
There's nothing quite so jarring as leaving the White House after just four years. Campaigning for his wife in 2008, Bill Clinton often joked about the job's perks-like Air Force One and hearing "Hail to the Chief" upon entering a room-and how they are then yanked away. "I was lost for two weeks when no one played music after I left office," he would say.
"We didn't know what I was going to do," Carter says of his own exit in 1981. "I found out to my amazement that we were a million dollars in debt." Selling his farm-supply business, then raising $25 million for his presidential library, became urgent tasks.
"For anybody, coming into the White House is a huge adjustment, and leaving is a huge adjustment, too," says Anita McBride, a former chief of staff to Laura Bush who helped manage her transition to private life. "Probably tougher on the president than it is on the first lady. The issues and the problems that come to his desk, they come all the time, and then all of a sudden-nothing does."
All this is to say that if Obama is booted out after one term, there will likely be a quiet period as he adjusts to life without 24/7 demands and the constant presence of a military aide with the nuclear suitcase handcuffed to his wrist. The upside: it's a chance to kick back and relax, and spend some quality time with Sasha, Malia, and dog Bo.
Where would they live? "The president's sudden celebrity, fast rise, and 2008 victory transformed pretty much every aspect of their lives, and there's no hitting the rewind button on that," says Kantor. "A lot of their old Chicago routines are out of reach now-relics of lives that don't exist anymore. They can go back to Chicago, but I'm not exactly sure they can go home again."
Annual earnings: $0
Likelihood: Fairly high, in the short term