Obama's post-presidential life begins to take shape

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wait for the arrival of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe during an official arrival ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House April 28, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Alex Wong, Getty Images

When President Obama leaves office in 2017, he will be just 55 years old -- 11 years away from the official retirement age.

The president has in recent weeks has begun publicly musing about some of the ways he might spend his time once he's unemployed.

"I'll be a pretty young guy when I, when I get out of here," he told David Letterman during a recent appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman." "Michelle and I, I think, are gonna continue to want to do the things that we care about in a different capacity. So we hope to be able to help young people get opportunity, we hope to continue to help our military families...I hope that, you know, I'll be able, on issues like climate change that are generational challenges, to lend my voice and most importantly, to encourage people to continue to get involved in politics."

"But," he added, "I really like the idea of playing some dominoes with you."

One of the more concrete symbols of his post-presidential life took shape Tuesday as the Barack Obama Foundation announced that the president's library would be housed on the South Side of Chicago as part of the University of Chicago.

In a video about the announcement, the president and first lady Michelle Obama spoke passionately about the decision.

"With both a library and foundation on the south side of Chicago not only will we be able to encourage and affect change locally, but what we can also do is to attract the world to Chicago," Mr. Obama said. "All the strands of my life came together and a really became a man when I moved to Chicago. That's where was able to apply that early idealism to try to work in communities, in public service, that's where I met my wife; that's where my children were born, and the people there, the community, the lessons that I learned - they're all based right in this few square miles where we'll be able to now give something back."

The heavily black neighborhood certainly provides a backdrop for another issue the president has explicitly identified as close to his heart: working to help close the achievement and opportunity gap for young men and boys of color. In 2014, he launched an initiative called "My Brother's Keeper" which connected local businesses and foundations with young men to create mentoring networks and help them cultivate skills to get ahead. The launch event featured a Chicago-based youth guidance group, Becoming a Man.

The White House's initiative has developed into a full-fledged nonprofit foundation called the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, which has similar goals of helping the young men with interventions from community, private and social enterprise partners throughout their entire lives.

At the alliance's launch, Mr. Obama reflected on the unrest in Baltimore and spoke about the larger importance of repairing communities that have been stripped of opportunities and dignity.

"This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life," the president said.

Mr. Obama has said more than once that he sees himself in these young men. Like many of them, he grew up without his father, and at the event, he recalled how he grew up "lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path."

"The only difference between me and a lot of other young men in this neighborhood and all across the country is that I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving. And at some critical points, I had some people who cared enough about me to give me a second chance, or a third chance, or give me a little guidance when I needed it, or to open up a door that might otherwise been closed. I was lucky," he said.

Michelle Obama has also become increasingly outspoken on issues of race, delivering a powerful commencement address at Tuskegee University over the weekend where she spoke about the "decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible" - the kinds of feelings that played out in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

She recalled "the sting of daily slights" she and the president felt their entire lives when they saw people who crossed the street out of a fear for their safety, clerks who watched them in department stores, and people at formal events who assumed they were "the help."

"I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day -- those nagging worries that you're going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen -- for some folks, it will never be enough," she said.

Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, predicted that Mr. Obama would replicate former President Jimmy Carter's approach to the years after his presidency.

In an interview with CBS News, Zelizer identifies Carter as the turning point in the modern post-presidency. Whereas his predecessors often died while in or shortly after leaving office, or served as informal consultants to the men that followed them in the White House, Carter launched The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia to continue his work on foreign policy and human rights.

The Carter Center has helped with disease eradication and election monitoring, and the former president himself has done diplomatic work, helping with various international negotiations around the world. Bill Clinton also threw himself into the work of his foundation, which has lately been under more scrutiny because of controversies that have emerged as Hillary Clinton mulled a presidential run. The Clintons have built the Clinton Family Foundation into one of the most powerful charities in the world, working in the areas of climate change and global health, among many other issues.

Zelizer said he thinks Obama "is going to replicate what Carter did. I think it will be domestic issues rather than foreign policy, but I do think that you'll see some kind of foundation/center activity headed certainly by the president when he's done with the White House."

Such a foundation could be in Chicago, near the library, but the Obamas have reportedly eyed New York as another possible home after they leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The president has also spoken openly about the possibility of remaining in Washington, D.C. while his younger daughter, Sasha, finishes her high school education.

Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who still remained in the public eye after his presidency because of his wife's New York Senate bid, Zelizer said he could imagine Mr. Obama staying out of the spotlight for a while.

"It's been a tough 8 years, pretty bruising to go through this and he's not someone who loves politics," Zelizer said. Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, remained a key Democratic surrogate and quickly set about building several public health-related initiatives and the Clinton Foundation.

Former President George W. Bush has largely remained out of the public eye since he left office, though he also does charitable work through the Bush Center, primarily in programs involving literacy and also war veterans.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for