Should This Obscure Former President Be Obama's Role Model? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Should This Obscure Former President Be Obama's Role Model?

Should This Obscure Former President Be Obama's Role Model?

By Sean Braswell


Because a president’s legacy doesn’t stop at the White House door.

By Sean Braswell

Part of a series on President Barack Obama’s last 100 days in the White House — and the legacy he’ll leave behind.

President Obama may have said last week that he is “rooting for” President-elect Donald Trump to succeed in leading the United States, but there’s no question that Trump’s election represents not only a partial repudiation of Obama’s own presidency but also a very real threat to his legacy, including the prospect that health-care reform and his other signature achievements will be repealed, reversed or reformed beyond recognition.

What comes next for Obama and trying to shore up his legacy? Well, it could very well be building a whole new legacy after he leaves the White House. When asked about his plans for his postpresidential years, Obama has given a number of replies: sleeping for two weeks, sitting on a beach, becoming an NBA owner or a sports league commissioner. The POTUS has even quipped, “I’m going to get on LinkedIn and see what comes up.”

From his more serious statements, though, it’s clear the 55-year-old president is making plans for a broad and ambitious era after he leaves the White House, one that could return to the type of community organizing he once engaged in — but at a whole new, even global, level. “I’ll go back to doing the kinds of work that I was doing before,” he told a group of middle schoolers last year. “Help young people get educations, and help people get jobs. … That’s the kind of work that I really love to do.”

If you know anything about him, it’s probably that he prevailed in what was, along with Bush v. Gore, the most hotly contested presidential election in U.S. history.

In doing so, Obama will undoubtedly follow in the big footsteps of activist-philanthropist ex-presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (although there may be a fair amount of golf going on as well, à la Gerald Ford). But if Obama really wants to channel the legacy of a versatile, big-hearted president — especially when it comes to the issues of education, economic inequality and race relations — then he could also learn a lot from a relatively obscure Republican who left the White House 135 years ago: Rutherford B. Hayes.  

Today, an ex-prez may pull in more than $200,000 annually, plus benefits (like office, staff, expenses and Secret Service protection). But before Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958 and subsequent laws enshrining such benefits, being a former president was a harder job — one high on prestige but low on funds. “There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president,” President John Quincy Adams once quipped.

Which is what makes Hayes — who had to contribute to his own transportation and state-dinner expenses (ahem, while he was president) — all the more remarkable when it comes to his accomplishments. If you know anything about him, it’s probably that he prevailed in what was, along with Bush v. Gore, the most hotly contested presidential election in U.S. history. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but after a prolonged electoral college dispute, a special commission set up by Congress voted on party lines to award the presidency to Hayes, who would be vilified by his opponents as “Rutherfraud.”

Hayes’ controversial rise to the presidency obscured an admirable résumé. Raised by a single mother, Hayes graduated from Harvard Law School before becoming a lawyer who represented escaped slaves, a Civil War hero who was wounded five times, a member of Congress and governor of his native Ohio. Hayes’ one term in the White House was defined by the contentious end of the Reconstruction era in the South, but, like Obama, he was a patient reformer and gradualist who kick-started the efforts necessary to end the spoils system in American politics and reform its civil service. Just like the current president, when it comes to matters of social progress, says Christie Weininger, the executive director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, “Hayes understood that if you pushed too hard there could be a backlash, that these things took time and you had to build a foundation.”

When Hayes exited the White House in his late 50s, well-regarded and in good health, he had a beautiful piece of property back in Ohio, “and he could have retired to a nice rocking chair,” says Weininger. Instead, Hayes set off across the country to advance a number of humanitarian, educational and reform causes, continuing — as Weininger puts it — “to fight for people that not a lot of other people in power cared about.”

Hayes focused his post-presidency on inequalities in income and power, with a major emphasis on universal tax-supported public education and prison reform, observing in 1886 that “free government cannot long endure if property is largely in a few hands and large masses of people are unable to earn homes, education and a support in old age.” Calling universal education his “hobby,” he served on the boards of several educational organizations, traveling the nation to raise awareness and advocate on their behalf, including fighting for federal subsidies for children in poor school districts, and catching more than one midnight train back to his home in Fremont, Ohio.

As the first president of the John F. Slater Fund, Hayes worked hard to improve the educational opportunities of young Black people in the South; beneficiaries of the fund included historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. By the time of his death in 1893, Hayes had spent well over a decade pursuing these causes — ones that should be near and dear to Obama’s heart as well.

Even after they move out of the White House, American presidents still have an enormous amount of prestige, influence and connections, says Weininger — but what they do with that power when they retire remains a choice. They can squander it in a rocking chair or on a golf cart, or they can do as Hayes did and continue to follow their vision of a better life for their nation’s most vulnerable citizens wherever it takes them, up to and including the midnight train home.

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