In the wake of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, little sums up the confused state of the campaign to defeat President Donald Trump better than reports of Democrats seeking a savior in the most prominent natural-born citizen constitutionally ineligible for the office: former President Barack Obama.
Three years after completing the maximum two full terms the 22nd Amendment allows, Obama remains the most popular figure in the Democratic Party. Even so, he has declined to use his influence for or against any of the candidates in the party’s crowded presidential primary.
For his part, Obama has publicly wrestled with how to balance the obligation he feels to make his views known when America’s “core values may be at stake,” as he said in his final White House news conference, with a desire to uphold what he has since called a “wise American tradition of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage and making room for new voices.”
In Obama’s telling, that tradition goes back to George Washington. “After he led the colonies to victory as General Washington, there were no constraints on him … no democratic norms that guided what he should or could do,” Obama explained in a 2018 speech. Washington “could have made himself, potentially, president for life. Instead, he resigned as commander in chief and moved back to his country estate. Six years later, he was elected president, but after two terms, he resigned again and rode off into the sunset.”
That is where Obama ended his history lesson, but that is not how Washington’s life actually ended. The story of America’s first president riding off into the sunset and vacating public life has become so much the stuff of legend that even his successors do not realize that it is only legend.
The reality is quite different: When Washington left the presidency, he didn’t really leave politics. In fact, few former presidents in American history have meddled as much as Washington did.
The lesson for Obama as he considers how much to involve himself in the 2020 race lies not in the path that Washington followed but in the disillusionment that he found.
If Washington could have had his way as he left the presidency in 1797, his final years would have gone much as Obama supposed. To say that Washington at the time had no precedent would not be accurate. He did have one; it was just a few thousand years old: Cincinnatus, the Roman general who saved the republic and then retired to his farm.
Washington said he wished to do the same as he returned to his Mount Vernon estate. “The remainder of my life,” he wrote in a letter during his final days in office, “will be occupied in rural amusements … at Mount Vernon, more than 20 miles from which, after I arrive there, it is not likely I ever shall be.”
Yet even as Washington rode around his farms, his mind traveled back to politics. The newspapers he pored over could not satisfy his need to be in the know. He badgered members of his final Cabinet, all of whom had retained their posts in the new administration, to send updates that pushed the boundaries of confidentiality.
The topics that dominated the news in the late 1790s echo today. There was a deepening division between political parties. There was a foreign power (France) that had meddled (unsuccessfully) in the most recent presidential election on behalf of the Democratic-Republican Party, which had formed in opposition to the administrations of Washington and his successor John Adams. There were new forms of partisan media and, with them, cries of fake news and calls for regulation.
No threat concerned former President Washington more than the foreign policy crisis that brought the country to arms in 1798. For those following the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, the broad outlines of the so-called XYZ Affair are familiar: the executive of the world’s mightiest military power (then France) sought personal benefit in exchange for granting a formal reception to the representatives of a fledgling republic (then the United States). The Americans called France’s preconditions bribery and refused to pay.
With French privateers preying on American ships, the United States prepared for war. Alexander Hamilton, who had served as an aide to Washington during the Revolutionary War, believed that President John Adams was not up to the challenge of overseeing the creation of a new army and began floating Washington’s name for command.
Barely a year had passed since Washington had left office with “a determination not to intermeddle in any public matter.” In letters, he worried what people would say if he violated that pledge. Would they “denounce” his return as “a restless act, evincive of discontent in retirement”? If so, they would not have been completely wrong. With a speed that surprised no one more than himself, Washington decided that he could not “remain an idle spectator” when what lay in peril was “everything sacred and dear to freemen.”
Far from fearing Washington’s return, Adams encouraged it—at least initially. So enthusiastic was Adams that he appointed his predecessor commander in chief of the armies of the United States without pausing to ponder why the Constitution specifically assigns that title to the president—and without knowing what Washington’s terms of acceptance might be.
As it turned out, Washington had some conditions. He would not take active command of the new army except in the event of an invasion and wanted to select the other general officers— including his second-in-command, who would serve as the head in his absence. For this position, Washington chose the one officer he had specifically heard Adams did not want: Hamilton.
Adams distrusted Hamilton and privately feared he more resembled a Caesar than a Cincinnatus. But publicly, Adams could not afford a falling out with Washington, who made it known he would resign if he did not get his way. Adams had no choice but to give way. Had he not, Adams later explained to a friend, Hamilton would have received command of the army directly from Washington, who “would have been chosen president at the next election.”
The evidence suggests that Adams was right to worry: As Adams embraced an opportunity for new negotiations that ensured a full-scale war with France never happened, influential people in communication with his own Cabinet secretaries plotted ways to replace him by persuading Washington to stand for office in the coming election of 1800. Much as Washington tried to stop all talk of the idea, his friends still found reason to fantasize.
While leaving office often creates the public perception of lifting modern presidents above politics, the private letters Washington sent reveal that he had descended deeper than ever. He began openly describing himself as a member of a political party (the Federalists), involved himself in congressional electioneering in a way he never would have as president, and supported the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, which the government used to imprison the sort of journalists who had attacked his character while in office.
Matters reached such a point that Washington had ceased all communication with three of the most prominent Democratic-Republican leaders: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, who went on to become America’s third, fourth and fifth presidents, respectively. Just hearing a report of a speech that Madison had given in favor of Monroe’s election to the Virginia governorship sent Washington into a rage on the evening of December 13, 1799.
Whether a retiree so easily roused could have sat on the sidelines as Republicans ran away with the next presidential election defies definitive answer because Washington died the next night.
None of this history should reduce the world’s respect for Washington. Surrendering power is not easy and in the story of Washington’s last years lies a reminder of the temptations former presidents face: However far they agree to venture back on to the public stage, there will always be calls for them to go further and resume the leading role—to be the “indispensable man.”
One person who no longer deemed himself indispensable during the final months of his life was Washington himself. The friends begging him to seek the presidency in 1800 believed he could straddle a partisan divide that no other candidate could. He disagreed. “The line between parties,” he wrote, had become “so clearly drawn” that even he could not rise above it.
Those despairing words point to the paradox of the post-presidency today: The stature that comes from rising above politics collapses as soon as one descends back into it. What gives former presidents the perception of power is also what leaves them, in effect, powerless.
Why, then, do Americans cling to the fantasy of former presidents rescuing the republic? Perhaps the answer lies in the circular nature of the Cincinnatus story so central to the country’s founding: Only by riding out of retirement can the hero be celebrated for riding back into it.