“I see you Barry,” said comedian Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondent’s Association dinner. “What you doin’ right now? You jet skiing while the world burns?” After leaving office, Barack Obama spent a few weeks palling around with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, and Oprah Winfrey in French Polynesia. Now the vacation’s over, how can Obama maximize his sway in American politics? The answer lies in understanding the source of his influence.
President Trump’s strength is founded on hard power, or the ability to coerce people through payments and force. As commander-in-chief, millions of men and women stand ready to follow his orders. With a stroke of the pen, Trump can renounce America’s commitment to the Paris climate treaty. Or he can put the pen down and press the nuclear button—and here, there are no checks and balances.
By contrast, as an ex-president, Obama has virtually no hard power. He even had to learn how to use the coffee machine at home. Instead, Obama’s strength lies with soft power, or the attraction of his image, beliefs, and values, in getting others to do what they otherwise might not. Soft power is still power, but it’s influence through seduction rather than coercion.
Here, Obama faces what I call the ex-president’s dilemma. He wants to remain an influential player in the political world, but intervening in the national debate may diminish his image, and therefore his power.