There exists a famous photo of previous presidents gathered around Barack Obama in the Oval Office shortly before he began his first term. It’s as though they all dropped by to wish him luck.
What makes this photo such a gem is the positioning of the men: Obama appears to be chummy with both the Bushes, while Bill Clinton stands close by with that recognizable grin.
But off to the side stands Jimmy Carter, seemingly singular and oddly out-of-place.
Many regard President Carter, the first of the photographed group to serve as president, a failed leader.
Consider that much of his proposed legislation never made it out of a Democrat-controlled Congress. And his image as a bullying micromanager, his mishandling of the nuclear debacle at Three Mile Island and the Iran hostage crisis are all most Americans think about when it comes to Carter’s legacy.
Yet he may well end up being considered the greatest president ever given his involvement as a peacekeeper, his tireless effort to build homes for the impoverished and his stalwart commitment to human rights. None of his living peers can make the same claim: George H.W. and George W. have both slipped into an abyss away from the public eye, while Clinton has spent the last few years running from intense scrutiny – deserved or not – as a wheeler-dealer who may have improperly operated his family’s foundation.
The former presidents’ varied histories makes one wonder: What will become of Obama after Jan. 20?
Like Carter, he’s a former outsider who can extend his legacy well beyond his White House years.
It would be a mistake, though, to cast Obama in the same light as Carter.
After all, he was able to pass meaningful health care legislation and did manage to kill the most wanted terrorist in the world, among other major achievements.
When it comes to a post-presidency, though, it’s clear to me the former law professor and community organizer would do well to follow Carter’s path.
Just as Carter has plied his talent and energy to help transform Habitat for Humanity into a poverty-eradicating force and to ensure free elections in the world’s most dangerous countries, Obama could do the same in health care, using his powerful voice and committed base to ensure safe and affordable access for millions of poor Americans, especially children and the elderly.
He could become a powerful voice for gun control, having witnessed some of our nation’s most tragic mass shootings – Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and Orlando – while in office.
He might even take up the cause of criminal justice reform and work to bring change to a broken system that houses the largest number of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders of any nation in the world.
Whatever path he chooses, Obama will leave office young and with his health intact, a claim few former presidents can make. If he so chooses to employ them, the unbridled energy and ability to create consensus he’s displayed throughout his political career will propel him to great things still.
He can choose to stand idly with other former presidents, or, like Carter, he can choose to stand apart.
Andrew J. Martin is a strategic communications consultant based in New Haven, Conn. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.