Aside from the occasional interview or speaking engagement, Obama has remained largely silent on the topic of America politics. The Atlantic's Julian E. Zelizer writes:
...[Obama] insists on following protocol and tradition for former presidents, resisting the temptation to jump back into the political fray.
According to Zelizer, by remaining out of the picture, Obama is following precedent. Even if a new administration dismantles much of the work of its predecessor, former presidents stay on the sidelines so as not to upset the balance of power:
...when control of the White House switches hands, presidents often work to reverse key policies. And, for the most part, ex-presidents hold their peace, placing the need for a smooth transfer of power and the health of democracy ahead of securing their own legacy.
But many say the current climate goes beyond the need for a peaceful transition of power. Two years into his presidency, Trump continues to spout hate, racism and bigotry towards Congress, Americans and the rest of the world. In an open letter to Obama, the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty begs the former president to show himself in the face of such hatred and unite the nation with his voice once again.
President Obama, what we need more than anything else right now is someone who can lift the country’s sights again. Someone who can charge us, as you once did, with a mission to “march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.”
Tumulty's call is urgent, concluding:
Find your voice again. Reclaim your legacy. Do it now. It won’t wait until your memoirs.
When Obama has spoken up, he's made it count. During a speech at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2018, Obama left the crowd with a clear directive. NPR's Melissa Block reports:
"The politics of division, of resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party," [Obama] said. "This is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for."
"I'm here to deliver a simple message," Obama told the student audience, "which is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it."
Obama importantly points out the "politics of fear" are nothing new:
The "politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment," Obama said, "did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He's just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years."
Block also refers to Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and adviser to Obama, to explain his silence:
Jarrett says that of course Obama wishes he had turned the presidential baton over to a "better steward," as she puts it. But, she says, Obama believes that constantly taking Trump on would inevitably turn him into a Republican target and distract attention from the issues.
Regardless of whether or not you believe it is Obama's duty to speak up or to remain silent, there's no question that the former president had a unique talent for bringing people together. The time for patience is long gone, and Tumulty's letter captures the feelings of many: the country needs its former president to speak out against the forces driving it apart.