Heard on the Hill

And the Oscar goes to ... Barack and Michelle Obama?

Ex-president’s movie is up for an Academy Award, and that’s just the beginning

A documentary from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company is among the nominees at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A win at Sunday night’s Oscars could cement Barack Obama’s path as a cultural tastemaker and Hollywood heavyweight — a new one for a former president.

“American Factory” tells the story of the rebirth of a truck-making facility as a Chinese glass manufacturer in the heart of the Rust Belt. It’s the first offering from Barack and Michelle Obama’s company, Higher Ground Productions, and snagged a nomination out of the gate for best documentary feature at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Maybe the fact that a historical presidency is yielding such a distinctive post-presidency shouldn’t be surprising, but that hasn’t stopped observers from marveling at how the Obamas have “gone multiplatform,” as Joe Pompeo put it in Vanity Fair, under the headline “Meet the Obamoguls.”  That they’ve done so while saying very little in public only adds to the mystique. 

“This is unusual for so many reasons,” says author Mark K. Updegrove, who has chronicled the “second acts” of presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton in a book by that name.

[‘American Factory’ arrives in time fraught with U.S.-China troubles]

When Obama left the White House, Updegrove predicted he would embark on an active post-presidency along the lines of Jimmy Carter. He was young and had international cachet. 

From left, First Lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, former President Barack Obama, and former First Lady Michelle Obama talk on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as the Obamas prepare to leave Washington following the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former President Barack Obama, and former first lady Michelle Obama following President Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An ex-president traditionally keeps a low profile for a year or two until his successor gets used to the job. Then he unleashes his memoir and breaks ground on a presidential library, considered a “coming out party,” Updegrove says. But Obama has done none of these things. 

There’s still no release date for his latest book, part of a deal the Obamas signed with Penguin Random House in 2017 that’s reportedly worth $65 million. For his part, Updegrove believes Obama is dragging his feet “so he stays out of the limelight until the election passes, and that is wholly unprecedented.”

Updegrove attributes the reserve to one person: President Donald Trump, who told reporters last year that instead of investigating his administration, Democrats should “look into” the Obamas’ book deal.

“He’s continued to make Barack Obama a sort of radioactive political presence,” Updegrove says. “That very, very rarely happens.” Incoming presidents typically “don’t attack their predecessors and continue to make them scapegoats as they might have during the campaign,” he adds. 

Trump may or may not be the one keeping Obama from hitting the traditional public circuit, but that’s something the former president doesn’t really have to do. Obama can let the art — namely, the movies, TV shows and podcasts — speak for itself.

The Obamas’ Netflix-based production company has several projects in the works: three movies and four TV series. The projects include a children’s show and a film adapted from David W. Blight’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning Frederick Douglass biography, “Prophet of Freedom.”

“Touching on issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights, and much more, we believe each of these productions won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect and inspire us all,” the former commander in chief said in April.

Other ex-presidents have aimed to educate and inspire — but rarely was it cool. 

Of course, it’s also lucrative. Numbers haven’t been released, but Netflix hasn’t been stingy when it comes to landing high-profile talent. For instance, “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes signed a nine-figure deal with the online streamer.

Meanwhile, Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir “Becoming” racked up a Grammy Award for best spoken word album and has sold more than 10 million copies.

That part, at least, matches up with the modern understanding of the ex-presidency as a cash cow. Updegrove credits the 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, with creating the business model of giving speeches and sitting on corporate boards.

Before that, some even went back into public service. John Quincy Adams became a congressman and fierce opponent of slavery, while William Howard Taft became chief justice of the United States. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence they served only one term in the White House.

If Obama gets a win on Sunday, the political executive he might have most in common with was never (quite) a president. Fellow Nobel Prize winner Al Gore took home an Oscar for best documentary in 2007 for his climate change film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Regardless of the fate of “American Factory,” which is directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, and co-produced with Participant Media, the 44th president will be just fine, Updegrove says.

A stamp of approval from the Hollywood establishment “would add to the luster of his post-presidency, but it certainly is not going to make or break him,” Updegrove says. Plus, with so many projects in the works, this probably won’t be his last chance.

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