Earlier this year, Barack Obama became the first American president to launch a podcast. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Almost every high-profile job these days, ranging from movie star to talk-show host, is now technically a stepping stone to society’s true highest rung: podcast host. But among eligible former presidents who might have first crossed the rubicon, Obama seems particularly suited to it. Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.—the show he created with Bruce Springsteen, a sort of ne plus ultra of dad bait—hails from Higher Ground, the production company the 44th president formed with his wife Michelle (who also has a podcast), to facilitate their creative ambitions. The Springsteen collab joins a robust slate of other projects in a burgeoning media empire that spans books, TV shows, feature films, live events (pre-COVID-19), and an upcoming stint hosting Saturday Night Live. (That last part isn’t true, at least as far as Fast Company knows, but who wouldn’t believe it?)
This year has seen Higher Ground transform from what might have initially been written off as a vanity production shingle—Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos was a big supporter of the Obamas, and his wife served as Ambassador to the Bahamas from 2009 to 2011—into a rather active content creation hub. They released one kids series in the spring, another on July 4, and have yet another scheduled for next month. In addition, the Kevin Hart feature Fatherhood, acquired on the festival circuit early this year, bowed in June. At least seven more projects have also been announced recently and are in development.
Although most Hollywood producers follow their taste for material or work within a defined genre, there are a few who have sought to create a niche out of developing socially redeeming material. Perhaps the best known of these is Participant Media, which builds impact campaigns around the films it makes, such as RBG and John Lewis: Good Trouble. Another upstart production company, One Community, which made Michael B. Jordan’s Just Mercy, has positioned itself as “impact first,” using its content to amplify the change it wants to see in the world.
What change does the President turned mogul—and his ascendant mega-influencer spouse—want to achieve with this torrent of projects? Does the Obamas’ output add up to more than just extra tiles on the Netflix homepage?
At the beginning of his post-presidency era, Obama seemed to split the difference between his two immediate predecessors. Like Bush, he withdrew from the spotlight—with the exception of an eyebrow-raising kite-surfing vacation on Richard Branson’s private island—and into writing his presidential memoir. Like Clinton, he took high-paid speaking gigs, some of them to Wall Street firms, earning as much as $400,000 a pop, and shoring up funds for his foundation.
Anyone curious about what he would do long-term, though, could only speculate.
“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the most important thing I could do for my next job,” he told a panel of young community organizers in April 2017. “[There are] all kinds of issues that I care about and issues I intend to work on. But the single most important thing I can do is help in any way [to] prepare the next generation of leadership to take their own crack at changing the world.”
This declaration is vague and positive in a quintessentially Obama-esque way. A lot of things could be described as “preparing the next generation of leadership.” Lining up more Wall Street speeches could technically qualify. To which version of preparation would the former president devote himself as a civilian?
The answer arrived in May 2018.
Just two months after revealing a joint book deal with Penguin Random House worth $65 million, Barack and Michelle Obama announced their deal with Netflix. For an undisclosed sum, the former first couple would be cultivating and shepherding scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and feature films. Although this would appear on its face an unconventional post-presidential career pivot, with a reality-television host in the White House ripping up the presidential playbook, perhaps the post-presidential formula of ranch retirement and occasional shuttle diplomacy deserved a shakeup, too.
Americans have always been curious about their presidents’ tastes, but no one had quite leaned into that bit of voter relatability more than Obama, with the president regularly releasing summer reading lists and end-of-the-year playlists. Producing content of his own was theoretically a fitting follow-up project for a presidency marked by mavenhood.
In both an early NYT scoop about a potential Netflix deal, and the eventual announcement confirming it, Michelle Obama and senior advisor Eric Schultz used identical language to describe how the former First Couple has “always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire.”
All politicians rely on storytelling in one way or another, spinning yarns about themselves, their constituents, and the entire world. Obama, however, is rare among politicians in that he was already the author of a memoir before he ever held office—a literary one to boot, not just the typical boilerplate campaign tome. Storytelling was key to his early success as a politician, and a lens through which to refract his worldview.
“I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story. That I owe a debt to all of those who came before me. And that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” he famously said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
But how would he and Michelle use the power of storytelling to inspire people in the Trump era?
The only hint anyone had about what to expect from the Obamas’ output at that point is their production company, Higher Ground, which name-checks a universally beloved Stevie Wonder track and nods to Michelle Obama’s most famous quote. It would be another year before Netflix revealed anything further.
In late April, 2019 the streaming service announced an initial set of offerings. These included: American Factory, a blunt look at the incompatibility of a globalized economy; Waffles + Mochi, a children’s show about the virtues of eating healthily, featuring puppets, celebrities, and occasionally Michelle Obama; and Bloom, a class-focused drama set in the fashion world of post-WWII New York City. It looked as though Higher Ground’s material would offer insight into the challenges facing Americans, further plumb the Obamas’ personal interests, and provide some high-brow fun as well. Essentially, it would be a line drive right down the middle.
The rollout of these projects so far has been marked by a kind of frictionless efficiency uncommon to government matters. American Factory won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2020, blasting a prestige gloss over the entire enterprise. Michelle Obama continued her transformation into a trusted guru of social-consciousness, launching The Michelle Obama Podcast on Spotify and adapting her bestselling memoir, Becoming, into a Netflix special. Higher Ground also began acquiring more features at film festivals, including Hart’s Fatherhood, and the forthcoming Worth, a patriotic tear-jerker about the 9/11 Victims Fund starring Michael Keaton. The company’s slate of originals is rapidly expanding as well, and now includes a series of love stories about Black teenagers, a feature adaptation of the Pakistani-penned bestseller Exit West, and a kids show applying the Doc McStuffins formula to scientists.
Some of these projects are exactly what you’d expect. We The People, a Schoolhouse Rock update released earlier this summer, and which I need not even mention features Lin-Manuel Miranda, is more on-the-nose than rhinoplasty. Civic-minded kumbaya for kids. In one episode, a young woman registering voters is slightly intimidated by a young man decked out in hip-hop regalia . . . only for him to smile, revealing bejeweled gold fronts that read “I voted.”
Some of the upcoming projects are head-scratchers. The G-Word, a loose adaptation of Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk, caused a stir in 2020 when Insider incorrectly characterized it as “a Netflix comedy series about the ‘chaos’ that occurred when Trump came into power.” This description had the Obamas taking a momentary break from going high, to fire back at their chief antagonist. It didn’t seem like a particularly wise move, and definitely not a necessary one, but it was at least an interesting direction for the pair to go in. The show’s actual logline—a part documentary, part sketch-comedy look at how government really works, hosted by Adam Ruins Everything creator Adam Conover—sounds like a joke premise Ben Shapiro might suggest when talking about what liberals watch on TV.
The Brand called Obama
The most representative project in Higher Ground’s repertoire is probably Overlooked, an anthology series examining some of the more incredible lives left out of the obituary section of the New York Times over the years. If there’s a unifying theme to the Obamas’ itinerary overall, it’s an emphasis on drawing attention to lives and perspectives too often left out of the American entertainment landscape: devoted single Black fathers, refugees, disabled athletes, and America’s indigenous population. Getting these kinds of stories into the televisual bloodstream is a noble cause. Most of them, however, don’t scan as hidden gems found in the rough but rather obviously worthy projects that would have found homes anyway. Why do they need a Presidential Seal of Approval, if not for that?
Perhaps the Obamas are just voracious consumers of content as well as canny curators, who find being on the supply side “a more palatable way to make money than the paid-speech circuit,” as the former president reportedly said. The pair has plenty of other ways to generate revenue, of course—albeit mostly in other parts of the media business. They can parlay a book into an arena tour, a podcast into a book, and a book into a Young Adult version of itself. But branching out into film and television production is not only lucrative, it’s also perhaps something in between fulfilling job and brand-burnishing exercise. It’s a chance to program an official Obama summer watchlist totally from scratch.
This collaboration has been carefully packaged, however, as a matter of purpose; a mission to inspire through storytelling. In reality, it’s more like a holistic, worldview-signifying imprimatur. Any loftier framing than that is just a testament to the power the Obamas’ storytelling has to inspire themselves.