Washington (CNN)Barack Obama is done being on ballots, but there will be ample opportunities to support him in 2018.
The quest to build a million Obamas
A club of young politicians is trading on his popularity and mission to kick-start their own careers. And its all part of the master plan the former President has laid out.
At 56, Obama is more popular than he's been in nearly a decade, and as an ex-president, his favorable ratings are expected to keep rising. At a time when our politics has become increasingly ugly, divisive, and crude, a political figure like Obama is rare.
In his retirement, Obama is redefining the post-presidency. Although he's generally following the career path set by his predecessors -- there's a foundation, and the library and memoir are on their way -- he's doing it bigger. The publisher of his and Michelle's forthcoming books promised "global publishing events of unprecedented scope and significance," his presidential library is actually going to have a public library in it, and he's in talks with Netflix to produce shows. But those aren't even the biggest projects on his to-do list.
"After I left office, what I realized is the Obama Foundation could eventually create a platform for young up-and-coming leaders, both in the United States and around the world," Obama said at a conference in Tokyo in March. "If I could do that effectively, then, you know, I would create a hundred or a thousand or a million young Barack Obamas or Michelle Obamas, or, you know, the next group of people who could take that baton in that relay race that is human progress and continue to build on the work that we have done. So that's really going to be my focus."
A million Obamas. It's one of the most ambitious goals ever for a former American president.
"People miss President Obama," said Brian Forde, a former senior advisor in the Obama administration's Office of Science and Technology. "It's not just Democrats."
Two out of three Americans like Obama, according to a January CNN poll. That includes 94% of liberals, 74% of moderates, and 37% of conservatives. He's a far more popular former president than his predecessors were in Gallup polls taken the year after they left office. Bill Clinton was at 47% in 2002. George W. Bush was at 45% in 2010.
Forde is now running for Congress in California's 45th district, in Orange County. The founder of a phone company in Nicaragua before he got into government, he's positioned himself as a tech-literate, Bitcoin-friendly candidate. And he's not the only Obama alum running.
This year, more than 60 former members of the administration are running for elected office, according to the Obama Alumni Association. There are former interns and campaign staffers, an ex-ambassador to Denmark, and the former director for Iraq in Obama's National Security Council. More than two dozen alumni are running for Congress, and others are running for state offices in 13 states.
"We learned a lot working for him," Forde said. "And the most good we can do is go back home, taking what you learned, and applying it to help people locally."
Forde and the other alumni candidates are the first wave of neo-Obamas. They're doing what their old boss asked them to. Action is a hallmark of Obamaism, true to its community-organizing roots. Don't boo, vote, he'd say campaigning. Today, the message is don't resist, run. "If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself," he said in his farewell address in Chicago in January 2017.
The original Obama brand, of the 2008 campaign, was a pop cultural phenomenon. It inspired street art by Shepard Fairey, a pop song by will.i.am., and a new generation of voters. But after a decade of politics, it's time for a refresh.
Kehinde Wiley's floral portrait of Obama unveiled in February is a pop sequel to Fairey's "Hope." Michelle's portrait, by Amy Sherald, was so popular the Smithsonian had to move it to accommodate visitors. The couple's memoirs will be bestsellers, whatever they do on Netflix will generate international interest, and support for Obamacare reached an all-time high last year. And of course, there was the time the former FLOTUS literally dressed as a pop star, celebrating Beyoncé's birthday with a "Formation"-themed photo. Welcome to New Obama Cool.
The Obama campaign's logo, color scheme, and sans-serif font have inspired political design ever since. The "O" logo has been featured on a shoe by Steph Curry, and it's shown up in the congressional campaign logos of Brent Welder, a former field and get-out-the-vote director for the Obama campaign running in Kansas, and Levi Tillemann, a former Department of Energy adviser running in Colorado.
Tillemann said his logo, which doubles the red and whites stripes of the Obama "O" with a Colorado "C" rising above, is meant to evoke a number of things, including the Colorado mountains and "the hope that Obama instilled in all of us, and the fact that that hope isn't gone, we just need to rekindle it."
For older millennials, who are now in their 30s, "Obama "was a watershed. He was a flash of lightning. He really was a political revolution," Tillemann said. Obama's call to run for office "resonated powerfully" with him and "it was one of a number of factors that made me decide to run," he said.
Running for office after working in the White House isn't unique to Obama alumni. Before he was a senator from Texas, Ted Cruz worked on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign and in his Federal Trade Commission. And New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik worked in Bush's Domestic Policy Council and chief of staff's office.
But having Obama on your resume is especially powerful in 2018, Tillemann said.
"Most presidents gain some benefit of the doubt with the passage of time," he said. "As we have receded farther and farther away from his presidency, and Washington has slouched further and further into the swamp, the decency and altruism of Obama shines through ever more brightly."
The new generation of leaders Obama hopes to inspire aren't just heading to Washington. The Obama Foundation recently announced the Community Leadership Corps program for 18- to 25-year-olds in Chicago, Phoenix, and Columbia, South Carolina. And in July, he's launching Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa for 200 young people there. It's at once a community and a global project.
Growing up, Ammar Campa-Najjar was inspired by Obama's story. "His journey that I read about in 'Dream From my Father' really resonated with me, because I went through a similar path of self-discovery. Not being Latino enough to the Latinos, or being Arab enough or American enough." He went to work for Obama, in his White House selecting the 10 letters he would ready daily from Americans, and in the Department of Labor. Today, Campa-Najjar is running for Congress in California's 50th District, in an "Obama way."
That means a "compelling grassroots message" and a "strong digital presence," he said. "Mobilizing, organizing a real people power movement. Grassroots. Not fueled by hate but by hope."
It's a template that can be used in California or Chicago, and in Iowa or Africa. Minting a million new Obamas is ambitious, and if the former president is successful inspiring a next generation of progressive leaders, he could leave a political legacy that lasts far longer than his eight years in office and is independent of his time as president.
"His call to action was not to defend his legacy, his call to action is to build on it. And even if we have to undo some of it to go forward, he would be the first one to say go for it," Campa-Najjar said. "The way forward is keep the spirit of Obama alive, even if his policies and accomplishments are superseded by our own in the future."