Formalizing Our Post-Presidential Norms

When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, there were five living former presidents—Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. This unusual political occurrence would not happen again until 1993, when Bill Clinton became president, with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush comprising the membership of the ex-president’s club. Since then, having a robust membership in this exclusive club has become more commonplace upon the inauguration of each new president—five when George W. Bush became president in 2001, four for Barack Obama in 2009, five for Donald Trump in 2017, and there will be five when Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021. As Paul Musgrave correctly states, what to do with a former president is no trivial matter, especially when there are so many of them hanging around.

My interest in the question of what to do with ex-presidents began early in my career. I am a presidential library enthusiast, and each research visit to one of these venues is always a stark reminder of just how important legacy building during the post-presidential years has become. Also, when George W. Bush took office in January 2001, I was curious to see if the scandal narrative that dominated the Clinton years would continue when he left office and how that might set the tone for his post-presidency. Clinton also seemed reluctant to leave center stage, promising a crowd of supporters just hours after Bush took the oath of office that “I’m not going anywhere.” Indeed, those early months in 2001 found many in the news media unwilling to kick their Clinton scandal addiction, with ongoing stories about Clinton-related controversies such as the Mark Rich pardon.[1]

Beyond precedent and tradition, there are no guidelines, constitutional or otherwise, for how former presidents should spend their time. In a perfect world, most would gracefully step back from the national spotlight and keep busy by serving as elder statesmen (when asked), engaging in philanthropic efforts, writing their memoirs, and building their presidential libraries. The tawdry concern of politics would be behind them forever as they worked to shape their legacy and secure their place in history. In addition, the need to make money (as in, giving speeches for exorbitant fees or securing a record-breaking book deal) would not be a priority as they would live comfortably on some sort of government pension befitting the former leader of the free world. In reality, as Musgrave outlines, ex-presidents during the past century have passed their time in myriad ways after leaving the White House. All since Herbert Hoover have a presidential library as well as a foundation or other nonprofit support organization. All have published memoirs. Most have been engaged with philanthropic efforts of some sort, though not all have served as elder statesmen and not all have disengaged from politics.

Perhaps the elder and younger Bush offer the best models of how to conduct a post-presidential life. George H. W. Bush maintained a somewhat low profile as a former president and was “deeply ambivalent about trying to shape his own legacy”[2] due in part to the fact that he lost his reelection bid in 1992. Nonetheless, Bush participated in the usual activities of former presidents, including speeches, publishing books, and philanthropic efforts. The latter included national and international relief efforts following natural disasters in which he partnered with Bill Clinton, with whom he developed a close personal relationship. Otherwise, Bush remained mostly off the national stage, stating that “we only have one president at a time,” particularly after the election of his son as president in 2000.

When George W. Bush left office in 2009, he did so with a low approval rating and his party out of power in Congress as well as the White House. Opinions vary greatly on Bush’s expansion of presidential powers while waging the War on Terrorism after 9/11, and his post–White House strategy seems to acknowledge the consequential yet controversial actions of his time in office. Like his father, his post-presidential years have been relatively low-key, focusing on occasional private speeches, public health efforts to fight AIDS in Africa, and his new hobby of painting, including numerous portraits of veterans. Both mostly stayed clear of politics, even when Jeb Bush ran for president in 2016. But there is one important caveat to using these examples as the blueprint—the Bush family did not need to accumulate wealth in the post-presidential years. Several presidents did not come from wealth and privilege and for a variety of reasons sought the opportunity to make money once out of the White House. Truman’s lack of wealth contributed to passage of the Former Presidents Act, and as Musgrave correctly points out, cashing in on one’s presidency has become normalized.

The idea of creating some sort of council comprised of former presidents is not new, nor is the criticism of how these men have spent their time and/or the government’s money. As early as 1925, historian Winthrop Dudley Sheldon pondered the public value of ex-presidents: “Will he retire into quiet seclusion, to occupy himself with his favorite pursuits, or, perchance, to write memoirs of his times and of his part in them? … Will he continue to be a national figure, gracing many a public occasion with high thinking and eloquent speech, or will he pass into the twilight zone of the “Has-beens,” who have had their day and no longer attract followers?”[3] During the Reagan years, with three former presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Carter) forging different paths to their post–White House years, scholars seemed interested in discussing what role former presidents could or should play in the operation of the federal government, since “the men who have served as our presidents are significant enough political figures for us to be concerned with them after they have left office.”[4] By the early 1990s, some members of Congress had begun to criticize the federal funds appropriated to former presidents as an “extravagant retirement, complete with Secret Service protection for widows and children, ‘fat’ book deals, handsome offices, and bloated staffs as well as presidential libraries that more nearly resemble monuments than research institutions.”[5]

Not many subscribed to an official role for former presidents then, and 30 years later, it is unlikely that such a plan would receive wide support. However, since the early 1990s, in addition to the Bush post-presidencies, we have also witnessed the Clinton and Obama examples. The Clinton Foundation, which includes the Clinton Global Initiative, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, though some of those activities (including lucrative speaking fees) have come under scrutiny, especially during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign as the Clintons faced accusations of influence peddling. The Obamas are now considered “super rich” thanks to their estimated $65 million book deal in 2017. Though not controversial (although critics scoffed at the amount), it does offer a stark contrast to how candidate Obama used to tell voters in 2008 that he and his wife had only recently paid off their student loans. What has been different with Obama has been his willingness to engage in harsh political rhetoric about his successor in the White House, which began during the 2016 presidential campaign and has continued to this day. The Trump campaign and presidency seemed to create an “all bets are off” posture for Obama as he broke with precedent in his detailed criticisms of Trump and his policies.

And that brings us to the impending post-presidency of Donald Trump. As with many other aspects of presidential campaigns and the presidency itself, Trump plays by his own rules. Public decorum and so-called “presidential” behavior have been rare for Trump from the moment he announced his campaign in June 2015. Hoping that will change once he leaves office would be a fool’s errand. Trump is nothing if not anti-establishment, and that is what his most ardent supporters appreciate most about him. Once Trump leaves the White House, several important questions loom. Perhaps the most important is, will he run again in 2024? Relatedly, what will happen to the Trump political movement, and will the former president serve as a kingmaker within the Republican Party? Unlike his predecessors, Trump has a large business portfolio to return to, and possibly several legal matters to attend to as well. While a library and/or memoirs do not seem high on the priority list at this moment, it would be hard to imagine Trump passing up those established branding opportunities for his legacy. The many things that made Trump unique as a candidate and president (the first with no prior political or military experience) are exactly the things that will drive his post-presidential years. He is perhaps more connected to a political movement than any previous president, and the fact that he is leaving office after only one term leaves the possibility for him to run again. Given Trump’s ability to rile up the political classes on both sides of the aisle, we may yet see broad public support for formal measures to rein in the activities of former presidents, as normative pressures will most likely be lost on Trump.


[1] See Lori Cox Han and Matthew J. Krov, “Out of Office and In the News: Early Projections of the Clinton Legacy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 33, Number 4 (2003): 925-933; and Han and Krov, “Life After the White House: The Public Post-Presidency and the Development of Presidential Legacies,” in In the Public Domain: Presidents and the Challenge of Public Leadership, eds. Lori Cox Han and Diane J. Heith, State University of New York Press, 2005.

[2] Ann McDaniel, “Bush’s Legacy Thing,” Newsweek, 10 November 1997, p. 50.

[3] Winthrop Dudley Sheldon, The Ex-presidents of the United States: How Each Played the Role, (Philadelphia, 1925), 3.

[4] Alan Evan Schenker, “Former Presidents: Suggestions for the Study of an Often Neglected Resource,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 12, Number 4 (1982): 545-551.

[5] See Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, Introduction to Farewell to the Chief: Former Presidents in American Public Life (Worland, WY: High Plains Publishing, 1990).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Paul Musgrave argues that both formal laws and informal norms shape an ex-president’s obligations and opportunities. Not only that, but a sitting president’s expectations about their future will shape their behaviors while they serve. Musgrave recommends several measures both formal and informal that he argues would lessen the influence and the dangers that ex-presidents can present.

Response Essays

  • Lori Cox Han characterizes the norms governing former presidents as mostly informal. Under them, modern ex-presidents have pursued a wide variety of activities. Regarding the newest member of the club, she writes, “The many things that made Donald Trump unique as a candidate and president… are exactly the things that will drive his post-presidential years.” She predicts that we may see renewed attention to post-presidential ethics, and perhaps new formal restrictions on former presidents’ behavior.

  • Lisa Anderson writes that the integrity of the institution of the presidency is the most important consideration in crafting our rules and norms for ex-presidents. She agrees that presidential libraries and foundations should likely be abolished, among other reforms. She closes by recommending a set of new disclosure requirements for presidential candidates, writing, “the character of our ex-presidents will never be better than the quality of our presidents.”

  • Prof. Andrew Rudalevige invokes Machiavelli to discuss the institution of the former president. Those who have served are likely to be motivated by the judgment of posterity, and that judgment should be used to keep them acting in honorable and useful ways. To that end, presidential recordkeeping should be reformed and centralized, aiding scholars in their work while limiting former presidents’ powers to hide documents from public view.