After leaving the White House in January 2017, Barack Obama and his family set out to do what all newly retired presidents have done—go back home, or find a new one. In Obama’s case, though, the new residence is in Washington, D.C. At first, the Obamas presented their choice as temporary—they wanted to let their younger daughter, Sasha, finish high school in Washington, they said—but their purchase of an 8,200-square-foot, $8 million mansion suggests a permanent stay. Obama’s postpresidency is thus shaping up to be virtually unique in American history: rather than departing Washington, he is planting his flag there, establishing, in effect, a shadow presidency.
Obama’s move breaks with long-standing precedent. Conscious of threats to the safe transfer of executive power in the young republic, America’s early presidents departed Washington on the expiration of their terms. After relinquishing his commission as general following victory over the British, George Washington was compared with Cincinnatus, the retired Roman general who assumed emergency powers, saved Rome, and then returned to his plow. Washington repeated his valiant act when he declined a third term as president—Garry Wills calls him a “virtuoso of resignations”—and set the standard for future executives by going home when his political work was done.
The American ideal of a president is essentially republican: a citizen steps forward to serve the government and returns to private life when his term is up. Washington’s diaries and correspondence of 1797 are consumed with matters of housekeeping, husbandry, and accounts. Mount Vernon had gone to seed, and Washington was forced to shore up his personal finances. Though he stayed abreast of national events and voiced his opinions to his associates, he stayed out of the affairs of government; keeping a safe physical distance from the capital reinforced that resolution.
Following Washington’s model, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe each returned to their farms, in varying degrees of insolvency. True, John Quincy Adams, finding retirement dull, soon returned to public service as a congressman, a role he embraced and thrived in, but his ambitions were not imperial. Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren went home, too, when their terms in the White House were finished.
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