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Vacation’s Over: Obama Returns to Public Life Next Week

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s extended post-presidential vacation is about to end. After spending weeks in French Polynesia — including time on the yacht of the movie mogul David Geffen along with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey — Mr. Obama will return to Chicago on Monday for his first public event as a former president.

His self-imposed silence since Inauguration Day will end with a series of events over the next four weeks. A Monday town hall-style meeting with students at the University of Chicago will be followed by an awards ceremony in Boston; a series of public remarks as well as private paid speeches in the United States and Europe; and an appearance at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And yet, Mr. Obama’s supporters, who have been waiting eagerly for the former president to respond to his successor’s accusations and policy reversals, are likely to be disappointed.

Even as he witnesses President Trump’s relentless and chaotic assault on his legacy, Mr. Obama remains stubbornly committed to the idea that there is only one president at a time. Those closest to him say the former president does not intend to confront Mr. Trump directly on immigration, health care, foreign policy or the environment during any of his events.

“Why are we not hearing from him? We’ve got to hear from him,” said Sarah Kovner, a New York City Democratic activist who raised more than $1 million for Mr. Obama’s campaigns. “Democrats are desperate.”

“Everything that Trump is doing really requires a response,” Ms. Kovner added.

Mr. Obama and a small cadre of former White House aides in his Washington office know that anything he says in public, no matter how veiled, will be interpreted as criticism of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Obama’s aides say he will also not criticize Mr. Trump in his private paid speeches. The aides would not say how much Mr. Obama will be paid per speech, but former President Bill Clinton averaged more than $200,000 per speech between 2001 and 2015; former President George W. Bush is reportedly paid $100,000 to $175,000 for each appearance.

Aides have rejected the idea that Mr. Obama should actively wage a public feud against Mr. Trump, with whom he has not spoken since the inauguration. They believe that such a fight would give the current president the high-profile political foil he wants to further energize his conservative supporters.

Mr. Obama has also concluded that his voice is not essential in the daily back-and-forth. His aides note that a new level of civic activism among Democrats eager to challenge Mr. Trump has emerged without much encouragement from the former leader of the Democratic Party. And many of Mr. Trump’s attacks on Obama-era policies — like the Affordable Care Act — have so far failed or stalled.

Instead, Mr. Obama is preparing remarks that focus on broader themes he hopes will keep him above the cable-television combat and the Capitol Hill debates: civic engagement, the health of the planet, the need for diplomacy, civil rights and the development of a new generation of young American leaders.

“Trump becomes a distraction from what he wants to do,” said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama is not the first president to try to avoid the political fights that consumed his time in office. Mr. Bush resisted pressure from his aides and supporters to criticize his successor during the months after Mr. Obama took office.

“People around him wanted him to do it,” recalled James Glassman, the founding director of the George W. Bush Institute. “People would come to me and say, ‘Can’t you get the president to defend No Child Left Behind?’ His legacy was about to be wiped off the face of the earth. The answer was no. That’s not the way he saw his post-presidency.”

Mr. Glassman said that Mr. Bush’s keep-quiet approach toward Mr. Obama was shaped by what he saw as unfair criticism by former President Jimmy Carter of his father, the elder President George Bush

 

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