There are few jobs that sound as appealing as former American president. You get to write a book that’s all but assured to be a bestseller, pull in big paychecks from paid speeches, and away from the White House and the day-to-day of partisan politics, people tend to like you a lot more.
“The standard operating procedure when a president leaves office is that they typically disappear from the public domain, at least for a while,” said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia Miller Center.
America’s most recent ex-presidents, though, have shown a willingness to stay engaged in politics.
Former President Donald Trump weighed in on the 2022 midterm primaries last month while speaking at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump called on the 17 Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him during his second impeachment to be defeated, including 11 of whom are up for reelection next year. Trump also asked supporters to donate to his political action committee Save America, and directly on his personal website, rather than to the Republican National Committee or other groups that traditionally fundraise for midterm elections.
It’s not as if past ex-presidents haven’t made a few endorsements before. In 2002, Bill Clinton campaigned for a trio Democrats in Connecticut and fundraised for his former White House adviser Rahm Emanuel, who was running for the U.S. House. Not every former Clinton official running for office received a visit for the former president, though. In 1994, George H.W. Bush raised money for his son Jeb, who was running for governor in Florida, and the senior Bush also made another gubernatorial endorsement in Connecticut, where he once lived.
“We certainly had candidates who hoped that popular ex-presidents — Clinton and Reagan — would give them endorsements, help them with fundraising, maybe appear at a campaign event,” said Robert Strong, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. But those tend to be the exceptions.
“Former presidents as a rule have been circumspect about their level of political activities after they left office,” Strong said.
George W. Bush, for example, made just one endorsement in 2020, for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and though he’s been an active fundraiser for Republican candidates, he sticks to closed-door events.
In 2018, though, Barack Obama dove headfirst into his first midterm since leaving the White House, endorsing more than 300 candidates at the federal and state level. In a statement at the time, Obama said he was “eager to make the case for why Democratic candidates deserve our votes this fall.” Unlike Trump, however, Obama waited until after his party’s primaries to weigh in on specific candidates.
Obama’s involvement came at a time of high stakes for Democrats hoping to wrest Congress from Republicans under Trump, and candidates wanted his support because he was popular. From 2017 to 2018, Obama’s approval rating rose from 58% to 63%.
Whether Obama and Trump represent a new normal for ex-presidents remains to be seen, but it’s possible that at least the two of them could continue campaigning for years to come. Trump has teased a possible 2024 run, extending his political relevance, and Obama’s endorsement has proven effective; 60% of the House and Senate candidates Obama endorsed won their races, according to data from the Brookings Institute.
“Some of the former presidents have had a fairly active public political life, but I think they’ve all been a little bit careful about how much of that activity they did,” Strong said. For the most part, they avoid controversy, engaging in nonpartisan and charitable work. “I don’t think there will be any reticence on Trump’s part about engaging in controversy,” he said.