Former US president Barack Obama came to Argentina last week for a short visit, the first since his term ended in January, and the careful balance he has espoused all year between popular expectations and post-Presidential restraint was on full display.
The main reason for his brief Argentine sojourn was the Green Economy Summit in the city of Córdoba, the yearly gathering of environmentally-minded young leaders, lawmakers, businesspeople and experts that endeavors to foster green thought and action through an informed and often motivational appeal to participants.
This year’s lineup featured plenty of heavy hitters: Nobel Prize winners Eric Maskin and Edmund Phelps, Supreme Court President Ricardo Lorenzetti, Governor of Córdoba Juan Schiaretti, former US Ambassador to Argentina Noah Mamet, 2016 Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty and representatives from Microsoft, UBER, OCA and many other major companies. Organizers, however, cleverly chose to finish with a bang and scheduled 44 to appear at the very end of the summit.
Host Juan Verde was quite probably key to Obama choosing to attend the event. The (very appropriately named) Canary Islander has a personal relationship with the President that dates back to the 2008 presidential campaign and the former’s appointment to the Department of Commerce as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia. Verde in fact describes Obama as his friend.
Nevertheless, if audience members saw the attendance of so many Obama allies and alumni as signs of a fire-and-brimstone presidential speech to come, they were in for a disappointment.
After taking the stage to thunderous applause, Obama did not stray from post-Presidential protocol. He paid compliments to the Macri government for its steps to end Argentina’s international hibernation. He warned of the dangers global warming entails for this generation and those to come. He reminisced about his administration’s green policies and the political struggle to make them come to fruition.
But only in the most demure of ways was the orange elephant in the room addressed: when asked about what he thought the future held for the Paris Agreement, Obama dryly stated that he believed the US would meet its emissions goals regardless of the new administration. Other related comments merely alluded to Fox News’ distaste for honest climate change coverage and Washington’s current desire to do things differently on the issue.
Some attendees were surprised by the omission, but they should not have been.
Since leaving office, Obama has tried to stick to the script when it comes to being an ex-President despite considerable difficulties. The opening salvos of the new administration found him in California and the Caribbean, on vacation and deliberately away from the press. White House tweetstorms accusing him of wiretapping his successor’s headquarters went almost completely unanswered, as did the many attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his main legislative achievement. Even personal attacks on his friend Susan Rice, which reportedly angered him, warranted no break from protocol.
The underlying logic behind this restraint stems from both tradition and strategy. Former Presidents are expected to avoid interfering with their successors’ time at the helm, particularly those who are barred from ever running again by the two-term limit imposed by the Twenty-Second Amendment. Presidents Carter, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 have all followed this guideline and Obama seems to have no interest in becoming the exception.
Perhaps more importantly for his legacy though, is the appearance of a standard-bearer that can unite the Democratic party after last year’s defeat at the polls. His continued presence at the forefront of Democratic politics may very well hinder the appearance of such a person precisely because of his overwhelming appeal and influence, given that it can deprive 2020’s up-and-comers of both attention and legitimacy among its voters. Obama’s relative youth as an ex-President and the speculation around Michelle Obama’s political future only exacerbate this problem.
Laying into White House occupants that believe climate change is a Chinese hoax, while quite appropriate for an environmental event, was not therefore what Obama ultimately chose to do in Córdoba.
Instead he offered the aforementioned motivational yet politically tame speech on the environmental challenges faced by the world right now, while also laying the groundwork for the yet to come Obama Foundation and yes, fundraising for it just like all other recent Presidents have done for their legacy institutions. His round of golf with President Macri and the rest of his activities in Argentina followed the same pattern with perhaps even more restraint.
So it is probably fair to say that along with any increase in environmental awareness or improvement of the government’s international standing, Obama’s visit treated Argentine admirers of the former President to a lesson in political discipline. And that’s something not seen every day.