Stadium tours, books, movies, a foundation, a Netflix deal — even a damn Oscar. In the three years since handing the White House keys over to the Trumps, Barack and Michelle Obama have put paid to any notion they would retreat to a quiet life of watercolours and dog-walking post-presidency.
In fact, with an empire larger and more influential than any of their First Couple predecessors, such is the reach of Brand Obama in 2020 that their time in the White House increasingly looks like a warm-up.
Next week, Michelle will add yet another string to the Obamas’ multimedia bow with the launch of The Michelle Obama Podcast — part of a deal signed with Spotify for an undisclosed sum — a series in which she will talk relationships with key people in her life, from family members to close friends and colleagues. Just the sort of project we’ve come to expect from a former first lady so personable she even hugged the Queen.
Only a handful of people know what it’s like adjusting to civilian life after leaving the Oval Office. Some shrink from the spotlight: his legacy defined by the Iraq war, Bush retired to a low-key life of fishing and painting on his Texas ranch. The Clintons might have built their own empire (along with taking another shot at the White House) but the workings of their foundation have drawn criticism, and the 1998 Lewinsky affair continues to dog them (an upcoming American Crime Story drama, co-produced by Lewinsky, is likely to paint an unflattering picture of the 42nd president.)
But the Obamas emerged from eight years in the DC goldfish bowl miraculously free from scandal, and the chaos of the Trump administration has only thrown their public appeal into sharper relief.
Liberated from the strictures of the First Lady role, Michelle in particular has found a new public identity, shedding the J Crew cardigans for gold, thigh-high Balenciaga boots and opening up in an intimate (if carefully edited) documentary for Netflix.
The Obamas regularly tap into their vast network of celebrity friends for campaigns and projects, from Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Meanwhile, the couple’s daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama, are navigating life as young adults, security details in tow. Malia, 22, is reportedly in a relationship with British student Rory Farquharson, whom she met at Harvard, while Sasha is going into her second year at the University of Michigan.
But how does the Obama brand break down, and who are their biggest allies?
The couple’s foundation, based in Chicago, where Michelle and Barack’s love story (and political journey) began, is at the core of their brand. A running theme of their work is civic engagement and community, “guided by a core belief: that ordinary people working together can change history”.
The Obama Presidential Center is being built on Chicago’s South Side in Jackson Park. It will include the presidential library, a museum, and office space for the Obamas.
A summit the foundation hosted in Chicago last year featured appearances by actress Yara Shahidi, Joffrey Ballet ballerinas, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and singer Mavis Staples. Obama wrote: “Michelle and I have always believed our best investment is in these leaders. If we can spotlight them, support them, and connect them to each other, we can create a generation of compassionate, ethical, empathetic leaders in nations throughout the world.”
According to Forbes, the foundation has received $165 million (£130 million) from donors to create the library and run programmes. Many have given more than $1 million, including Bill and Melinda Gates, JJ Abrams, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.
One initiative is the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, inspired by the My Brother’s Keeper Challenge that he started through the White House in 2014 to address challenges that boys and young men of colour face. It supports young men through mentoring, education, job training and more. Obama said: “My Brother’s Keeper is about helping more of our young people stay on track. Providing the support they need to think more broadly about their future. Building on what works — when it works, in those critical life-changing moments.”
After leaving the White House the Obamas signed a deal worth $60 million with Penguin Random House for their memoirs, a sum that dwarfs those inked by former presidents — George Bush was paid $7 million for Decision Points.
Michelle’s memoir Becoming became the best-selling book of 2018 in just 15 days, followed up with a glittering international tour. Obama is yet to release his memoir, but his prior form with best-sellers Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope suggest his offering will be an explosive one.
The earliest sign the power couple would not be retiring quietly was paying $8.1 million for a spacious mock-Tudor home in the prestigious Kalorama area of Washington, where neighbours include Jeff Bezos and Ivanka Trump.
For when they want to get away from the Swamp, last year the Obamas splashed out $11.5 million on a waterfront home in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the summer playground for America’s wealthy East Coast elite. It has seven bedrooms, a pool and a separate barn (ideal for housing their large security detail).
The Netflix deal
A multi-year deal signed in 2018 is rumoured to be worth tens of millions of dollars and involves both TV shows and films (including May’s fly-on-the-wall Michelle documentary Becoming) under their company Higher Ground Productions. The couple already have an Oscar for American Factory, a film they backed which won Best Documentary.
Coming up is a movie on David Blight’s Pulitzer-winning book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy.
Obama can command up to $400,000 for a speech — the same as his annual presidential salary. According to CNBC, he earned $800,000 for two speeches and a minimum of $1.2 million for three talks on Wall Street. He is signed with New York-based Harry Walker Agency, which also works with Hillary and Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Lin-Manuel Miranda and now reportedly the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Tickets for Michelle’s sell-out Becoming book tour last year sold for up to $3,000 for a front-row seat, signed book and photo with her.
But the Obamas don’t always charge for their time: during lockdown they hosted a virtual graduation ceremony, where guests included Malala, Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga. The 27,000 grads who joined were from HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities.
The Obama Power Squad
The royals: Duke and Duchess of Sussex
Harry and Michelle hit it off when they worked together on the 2016 Invictus Games — the Duke convincing the Queen to respond to a spoof “trash talk” video from the Obamas.
The next year Harry interviewed Barack for the Today programme and saw him at the Invictus Games, above. Meghan and Michelle bonded over their interest in women’s empowerment, at a chicken taco lunch in 2018, and teamed up again recently for a virtual Girl Up Leadership summit, one of the Duchess’s first speaking engagements since stepping down as a senior royal.
The cable heavyweights: Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O’Brien, Gayle King
Oprah Winfrey was an early champion, inviting then Senator Obama onto her talk show in 2006.
Last year she was the opening guest on Michelle’s Becoming book tour, above. DeGeneres is another longtime ally. The 45th president and the presenter both wept when he awarded her the Medal Of Freedom at the end of his second term, praising her bravery in coming out as gay. Other friends include news anchor King and talk show host O’Brien, who will be a guest on Michelle’s upcoming podcast.
The A-listers: the Clooneys, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys
“If Senator Obama became Presidential Candidate Obama it would be the most electrifying thing to happen to the Democratic party since Kennedy,” wrote George Clooney in a letter to the Los Angeles Times in 2006. The actor hosted the former First Couple at his Lake Como villa last summer.
Other A-list allies include Beyoncé, her husband Jay-Z and singer Keys.
The Obamas harnessed their celebrity contact book to launch the When We All Vote campaign, encouraging voter registration before the 2020 ,election. Their “Voting Squad” includes Shonda Rhimes, Selena Gomez, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Hanks.
The prodigies: Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai
After Swedish climate change activist Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic last year, she spent the afternoon talking with Barack in Washington, where the ex-president told her, “we’re a team” and gave her a fist bump. Michelle has said meeting Yousafzai in 2013 inspired her mission to support girls’ education. The activist, who has completed her Oxford University Degree, hung out with Michelle on the London leg of her book tour last year.
The billionaires: David Geffen, Richard Branson
Days after leaving the White House, the Obamas were spirited away on Branson’s private jet for a few weeks of relaxation on his Caribbean island Necker, left, where Barack went surfing for the first time in eight years.
Dreamworks founder Geffen hosted the Obamas on his superyacht for a holiday with Hanks and Bruce Springsteen in 2017.