CHICAGO — True to form, the beginning of Barack Obama’s public post-presidency was all studious symbolism, as he teasingly played off the crowd and cautiously avoided saying anything about things he didn’t want to discuss — most of all, the man who succeeded him in the Oval Office.
Except for one short joke as he took the stage here at the University of Chicago — “So … uh, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” — he spoke Monday almost as though Donald Trump, whom he spent last year calling a threat to the republic and not to be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal, weren’t in the White House.
Obama mapped out a sense of urgency — about the need for more civil discussions. He suggested that there is cause for panic — about the reasons young people aren’t voting in the numbers he’d want.
Leading a conversation about young leaders with six local students, he took aim at gerrymandering, special interest money and low participation as the causes of what’s gone wrong in American politics, and said he hopes to help identify and break down the barriers that keep young people from getting more involved.
“What is the most important thing I can do for my next job? What I’m convinced of is that although there are all kinds of issues that I care about, and all kind of issues that I intend to work on, the most important single thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and take their own crack at changing the world,” Obama said, in his opening remarks.
Ticking off economic inequality, lack of opportunity, criminal justice reform, climate change and reactions to violence, Obama said, “all those problems are serious, they’re daunting, but they’re not insoluble. What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.”
Trump represents not just a challenge to what Obama put in place during his eight years in office, but also to his sense of American politics. He spoke repeatedly during the 2016 campaign about how he assumed voters would never go with Trump, and that he’d never be able to actually win.
In response, Obama on Monday tweaked his most famous line from his most famous speech, which essentially launched him into the presidency on a sense that he represented the unity in America that was otherwise being overlooked.
“When I said in 2004 that there were no red states or blue states, there are United States of America, that was an aspirational comment,” Obama said.
That may be true of one-on-one interactions, Obama added, but “obviously, it’s not true when it comes to our politics and our civic life, and maybe more pernicious is the fact that people just aren’t involved. They get cynical, and they give up.”
Obama taught here on the law school faculty before running for U.S. Senate, and he returned here last year for an event a few blocks away to promote his effort to name Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court. But arriving as a former president came with some notable changes: a smaller motorcade, a tiny entourage with a staff small enough that he had to call out at one point to ask how long he was supposed to stay on stage, a group of Secret Service agents new to his detail but security light enough that audience members didn’t even have their bags checked, let alone have to go through magnetometers.
Outside, there were all of four demonstrators: three from the Revolutionary Communist Party holding signs that read “Obama — We Are Not On the Same Intramural Team as Trump!!” playing off the former president’s comments after the election results came in, and one man who stood silently on the sidewalk outside holding large American and Mexican flags.
But fresh off his most recent vacation in French Polynesia with Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks, Obama entered to cheers and applause, starting off with remarks from Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola, an undergraduate who briefly recounted Obama’s runs for president: “He won … and then, in 2012, he won again.”
Omoniyi-Shoyoola compared Obama’s life to “one of America’s great historical narratives,” alongside those of Frederick Douglass and Teddy Roosevelt.
“His legacy is still being understood, cemented and challenged. But the man stands as ready as ever to assume one of the most essential roles of democracy, that of the citizen,” Omoniyi-Shoyoola said.
Obama spent most of the event asking questions, on what could be done to get more students to be like the ones on stage and involved with their communities, on whether a member of the University of Chicago College Republicans felt that his voice is drowned out on campus, on how to tackle the fragmentation of journalism, and how young people are basing more of their information on social media than verified facts.
Picking up lines he delivered at the end of his presidency, he chalked up his successful run for U.S. Senate from Illinois to meeting people in person even in heavily Republican parts of Illinois, and how that prepared him to do the same in Iowa in 2008 and beyond.
The need to build more connections between Democrats and Republicans, Obama said, was reflected in his relationship with Dick Lugar, the former Republican senator from Indiana who had been a mentor to him when he first arrived in the Senate but who then lost a primary from the right because he was perceived as too moderate and Washington-centric, or, as Obama put it, “because he talked to me.”
Obliquely, he talked about the current state of immigration policy in response to a student’s question about what to say to undocumented immigrant workers whose nervousness has spiked since the election.
“Historically, when you look at surveys, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that America is a nation of immigrants and that immigration has contributed,” Obama said. “Sometimes, they feel frustrated if it is perceived that folks are breaking the rules or cutting the line, essentially.”
But he warned “not to assume that everyone who has trouble with the current immigration system is automatically racist.”
Obliquely, he talked about the lessons of losing an election by answering another student’s question about failure. He mentioned the book he’s started writing since leaving office — reflecting on his own story and, particularly, the embarrassing failure of his 2000 House primary campaign against Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) — and gave some advice for young people looking to get into politics.
“As I was writing, when I thought about that race, what I was reminded of was the degree to which that was probably the sole time in my political career where I think I ran more just because it was the next thing, rather than running because I had a good theory of what I wanted to do,” Obama said. “If you’re more concerned with, ‘I want to be a congressman,’ or ‘I want to be a senator,’ or ‘I want to be rich,’ some people may succeed in chasing that goal, but when they get there, they don’t know what to do with it. And if they don’t get there, they don’t have anything to show for it.”
He said he’d be answering more. But, perhaps sensing the tension in the crowd eager to hear him say more about the current political situation, and wanting to avoid a question from one of the students asking him about Trump more directly, Obama cut off the event at two questions.
“There’s a reason why I’m always optimistic even when things look like they’re sometimes not going the way I want,” Obama said, closing the event, “and that is because of young people like this.”
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