April 14, 2022

Barack Obama has always been good at bringing Americans together, making us feel like we’re on the right track. So his involvement in a new Netflix nature documentary series feels decidedly on-brand: not only does the series celebrate something we can all agree on (the splendour of the natural world), but casts the former president in the familiar role of Reassurer-in-Chief.

The magic of Our Great National Parks isn’t in Obama’s voiceover — he’s still a better orator than a narrator, as it turns out — but in his mere presence onscreen. “Join me in this celebration of our planet’s greatest national parks and wilderness,” he drones pleasantly in the trailer, over magnificent footage of scurrying ants, cascading sea ice, a monkey leaping through an otherworldly landscape of jagged rocks. An extended riff on the micro-ecosystem that lives inside the fur of a sloth ends with the money line: “This sleepy sloth might just save us all.”

The vibe, to use a very Obama-era buzzword, is decidedly hopeful.

But it’s also a little bit odd. How did the 44th President go from leading the free world to hosting nature programs?

The path from the White House to the screen is not completely unprecedented; former Vice President Al Gore, who lost his bid at the presidency in 2000, went on to win an Oscar for his climate documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. But where Gore’s foray into filmmaking was blatantly scaremongering, designed to terrify a complacent public into taking action on climate change, Obama greets us like he’s taking us on a date: standing barefoot on the shores of a Hawaiian beach, welcoming viewers to a visual pleasure cruise through the world’s most gorgeous places. It’s just delightful — and, it must be said, a good look for him.

But by Obama’s own admission, this isn’t what he wanted. His departure from office in 2017 was also supposed to mark a big step back from public life, as he cited the “wise American tradition of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage and making room for new voices.” That idea is an American original, first expressed by George Washington in his farewell address. Then, the slow fade of the elder statesman was an almost parental fantasy: of leaving the nation you raised from infancy to its own devices. By the time Obama left office, it was a more standard expression of confidence: this was simply how it worked, and the wheels of democracy would keep on turning without him.

The trouble is, they didn’t — and certainly not in the direction liberals wanted them to. For those on the Left, the president’s vow to step back from public life at this moment was practically a form of criminal negligence, leaving the country in the highly incapable hands of a heinous orange madman. And while nobody said so at the time, the impending Trump administration was sort of Barack Obama’s fault. The outgoing POTUS had been instrumental in pressuring Biden, his own Vice President, not to run in 2016, even though he would have been traditionally next in line for the nomination.

And while we can never know if Biden would have performed better against Trump than Hillary Clinton did, in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine him doing worse — or that his chances weren’t badly undersold. Joe Biden was a lifelong public servant, a supporting actor in the nation’s most historic presidency. Discouraging him so that the woman Obama had once grudgingly called “likeable enough” could have her chance at the big game might have seemed expedient — in the sense that following up the first black president with an old white man just felt like a step in the wrong direction. But when it came to winning the election, it was almost certainly a strategic error.

There were signs early on that Obama knew this, and felt bad about it. The former president began surfacing periodically during the Trump presidency, mostly with gentle attempts to keep the more strident elements within the Democratic party from driving the whole enterprise fully off the rails. Then, his goal was clear: to prevent his party from pushing radical policies that would alienate even more voters and result in a two-term Trump presidency. But now that the 2020 election is won and done, he’s become more visible, not less. Podcasts, panels, daytime TV appearances: suddenly, the man seems to be everywhere.

How great is all this for democracy? Certainly, it can’t be great for Biden — whose approval ratings have plummeted amid national frustrations over inflation and never-ending pandemic restrictions — to have his young, fun, wildly popular former boss still here and hamming it up for the adoring public. Barely into his mid-fifties at the close of his time in the White House, Obama admittedly makes for an unusual elder statesman: younger than either of the presidents who succeeded him, naturally at ease with the permanent fame that is an artefact of having been the first POTUS in the social media era, and perhaps most importantly, still beloved as a representative of the recent past in which even the most jaded liberal could feel proud to be American.

When we look at Barack Obama, we see one of the best things America has ever done. When we look at Joe Biden, we see the guy we voted for out of sheer desperation not to weather a second term of Trump.

The Netflix documentary is the least of it: much has been made this week of a video in which Biden appears to linger forgotten in the background at a White House event while Obama works the crowd. And while the full context thankfully paints a different, less humiliating picture, there’s still a reason why it got so much attention in the first place. It feels like a microcosm for their whole relationship, where Biden is forever the sidekick to a charismatic, beloved American hero. That running joke about how people would have voted for Obama three times if they were allowed to was never really a joke.

Hence the craving for Obama’s reassuring presence in our living rooms, if not from behind the Oval Office desk, then as a documentary tour guide. Just seeing the former president in a public-facing role again is like liberal comfort food, a throwback to a familiar and more optimistic time. Before Trump. Before Covid. Before the devastating decline of public trust that left our social fabric in tatters. If we can’t have him back in the White House, then this is the next best thing: a wholesome tour through the planet’s wonderful wild places, replete with hopeful messaging about “our shared birthright”.

And as long as we studiously avoid thinking about the less-savoury aspects of Obama’s legacy (just try not to picture the sleepy sloth being murdered in a drone strike), and focus on how great he makes us feel, this arrangement could last for decades.

It’s not that Obama and Our Great National Parks will actually solve the nation’s problems. But it’s surely a perfect piece of escapism at a moment when real life is getting increasingly bleak: a message of common humanity at a time when we’re tragically polarised.

And frankly, maybe we need this. Let the former president’s familiar voice transport you far away from the endless churn of the news cycle, from the horrifying reports of foreign wars, to a peaceful, hopeful place. Let yourself forget about the red wave of Republican victories that’s been prophesied for November, about President Biden’s latest bumbling performance, about the fact that the woman in line to be our next Democratic nominee might as well have been designed in a lab to alienate as many voters as possible. Behold the natural world whose inhabitants live free of political conflict (even if they do occasionally, out of necessity, eat each other.) Imagine yourself, just for a moment, as a citizen of the Earth instead of one single state, country, or tribe. Who knows: maybe the sleepy sloth will save us all.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.