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Obama logs on amid the coronavirus pandemic

The former president comes off the sidelines to share health information, say thanks and offer inspiration — but avoids criticism of Trump.
Barack Obama Speaks In Berlin
Former President Barack Obama speaks to young leaders from across Europe in a town hall-style session on April 6, 2019, in Berlin.Sean Gallup / Getty Images file

Former President Barack Obama is making use of his large social media platforms to address the coronavirus crisis and posting like never before since leaving the presidency.

Obama, who has remained mum on many of the biggest issues to arise during President Donald Trump's time in office, is now routinely posting messages to Twitter — and cross-posting some to his Facebook following — promoting safety measures, explaining the reasoning behind strong new restrictions to combat the virus, and sharing stories he finds inspiring of individuals and organizations taking action during the crisis.

As Trump used Twitter to post messages late Sunday into Monday suggesting his administration may reverse course on elements of its call to action in response to the outbreak in an effort to jump-start the economy, Obama posted a link to a New York Times article detailing "harsh steps" that may still need to be taken or expanded upon to stop the transmission of the virus.

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"Here's a useful summary of the current best thinking among public health experts on how we need to approach the fight against COVID-19 in the coming weeks," Obama said in a post that has been retweeted roughly 20,000 times.

Obama's posts have generated plenty of engagement and have reached tens of millions. Last week, there were more than 120,000 retweets on his tweet linking to a Washington Post interactive that showed how the curve of infections can be flattened under various simulations. That article, as one Post reporter tweeted, became the publication's most read, topping even news of Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape in 2016.

"Watch this," Obama said. "It shows why we should all do the right thing and stay home to the fullest extent possible. All of us can help slow the spread of the virus, protecting the elderly, the vulnerable, and each other."

Over the past two weeks, the former president has posted to Twitter on the outbreak more than a dozen times, with posts ranging from thanking NBA players and executives for "setting a good example during a challenging time" to highlighting an explanation for why large gatherings and other events needed to be canceled.

A source close to the former president said Obama wants to be sharing "public health messages that people need to be seeing and hearing and understanding" at this time.

"First and foremost, his priority has been to push out important public health messages that he feels people need to learn and understand because this is a complicated issue and a lot of the science is counterintuitive," this person said. "So he wants to make sure people have access to good information."

The source added that Obama also "wants to help lift up people who are doing good work in this time of crisis, whether that is individuals or organizations or health care workers or just everyday Americans doing extraordinary work." Obama believes "those are inspiring stories to share and hopefully will inspire others to follow suit," the source added.

The posting would be unremarkable if it was not for Obama's steadfast insistence — for the most part — on having other leaders take the wheel during what have been some of the bigger crises to take place during Trump's presidency.

Of note, Obama has not criticized his successor in any of the posts, instead offering "a profound debt of gratitude to" those "on the front lines of this pandemic," advising Americans "to check up by phone on elderly or vulnerable friends and neighbors who may need our help," and promoting what he called "a sober but useful primer on what we should expect in the coming months."

"This crisis is unlike any in our lifetimes and it will take all of us to combat it," Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesman, told NBC News in an email.

"President Obama has the ability to reach millions with critical information and things we all can do to contain the spread of the virus," LaBolt added. "While he has left day-to-day politics to the next generation of leaders, it's no surprise that he would leverage his following to encourage broad-based participation in the urgent response effort."

Meanwhile, Obama has directed his foundation to feature "Stories of Hope" on citizens stepping up amid the outbreak, some of which he's already featured on Twitter.

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As Monday marked the 10-year anniversary of his signing of the Affordable Care Act into law, Obama has far outpaced his predecessors in messaging on the crisis. Former President Bill Clinton has shared a couple of posts on social media asking Americans to stay at home unless they have a vital reason to leave, while the libraries of former presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush have promoted coronavirus messaging on their platforms.

The involvement of past presidents in combating the crisis arose during Sunday's White House coronavirus task force press conference, during which Trump was asked if he had any interest in reaching out to his predecessors to speak on the crisis.

"Look, I respect everybody, but I feel I have an incredible team and I think we're doing an incredible job," Trump said, adding, "So I don't want to disturb them, bother them. I don't think I'm going to learn much. And, you know, I guess you could say that there's probably a natural inclination not to call."

"Now, if I felt that if I called, I'd learn something and that would save one life — it would save one life, OK? — I would make the call in two minutes," Trump continued. "But I don't see that happening."

One week earlier, Obama shared a message aimed square at Washington and state and local governments across the county.

"Not everybody can stay home, and we owe a big debt of gratitude to health professionals, transit and airport workers, first responders, and everyone keeping our communities going," he tweeted. "Leaders have to step up to support people whose lives and livelihoods take a hit in the weeks ahead."