Barack Obama tells Chicago students "failure is terrible but sometimes necessary" in first speech since stepping down as president

Harriet Alexander
Barack Obama makes his first speech since stepping down as president in Chicago - Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

  • Obama leading panel discussion with students as the first public event of his post-presidential life
  • Obama says "society has become more individualistic" as he urges audience to get involved
  • Obama hearing from students about their thoughts on activism, media and challenges
  • Event held at the University of Chicago, where his presidential library will be established
  • Obama has since January been on holiday with Sir Richard Branson and on an island writing his book
  • Speech expected to be first of many, paid and unpaid

Barack Obama is holding his first public event since stepping down from the presidency, with a panel discussion at the University of Chicago.

The former president is leading a discussion about society and politics, and observed that "society has become more individualistic".

"There are a bunch of social scientists out there saying the mediating institutions - the PTAs, the Rotary Clubs - that used to bring people together to work on issues; those have declined," he said.

" Statistics show that people are less likely to be involved in their community than they used to be.

"They are not involved in common projects.

"We have become a more individualistic society."

Mr Obama is seated between six students, and is moderating a discussion about encouraging young people into politics.

"What is it that prompted you to get involved?" he asked. "And what is preventing your friends from doing so?"

Mr Obama began by speaking about his political start as a community organiser in Chicago - a job he took, he said, without really understanding what the title meant.

He credited Chicago with his political formation.

The former president has kept a low profile since Donald Trump took over the White House on January 20.

He immediately left the US for a holiday with Sir Richard Branson on his Necker island, and was pictured learning to kite surf.

Barack Obama kitesurfing on February 7 with Sir Richard Branson Credit: AFP

He then went to the South Pacific, where he stayed on a remote island, disconnected from the world, while he worked on his book.

The rest of the Obama family have moved into their new family home in Washington, DC, while Sasha Obama finishes school. Malia Obama is currently interning in New York.


Obama finishes his discussion

Barack Obama finishes speaking:

My hope is that working with people like this, with high schools and my foundation, will provide more and more pathways to getting involved.

So that when somebody like me, 35 years ago, decides to contribute, we can ease the path a little bit.


Obama asked about coping with failure

With respect to failure - it's terrible.

But sometimes it's necessary. If you are trying to change something.

Some of you talked about your own businesses - you will go through failures.

I think the most important thing - and this is a bit of a cliche - is to have resilience. And examine: what did I do not to succeed? How can I do better?

The political race I lost was to Congressman Bobby Rush.

I am writing a book now, about my political journey. And when I think of that race, I am reminded: that was about the sole time in my career I was running because it was just the next thing. Not because I want to accomplish something.

So I always tell young people - worry less with what you want to be, and more with what you want to do.

Worry less about wanting to be a senator, or congressman, or rich.

If you are worrying about improving education in low income neighbourhoods. Or climate change.

Then it puts you in a position to have an impact.

The most successful business people I know - Bill Gates didn't start off saying he wanted to be the richest man in the world - he started off with cool computers. And cool software. And it worked out well for him.

Even if you fail at a particular objective, you are still learning. 

And it becomes not just about you.

As you grow up you learn and change and evolve in all kinds of ways. That is healthy and normal.

But with the internet that past is always there.

One way to think about it: just own it.

It's true that if you had pictures of everything I did in high school, I probably wouldn't have been president.

I would advise you to be a little more circumspect with your selfies, and what you take pictures of.


Obama asked about gaining trust from immigrant communities

There is a matter of trust.

So for you to finish your research project they are going to need to trust you.

One of the things I learnt as an organiser is: your ability to create trust affects you ability to have an impact.

That's hard to do in the current environment.

But it's not impossible.

I think generally speaking, immigration is a good example of an issue that stirs up so much passion and sometimes misinformation that it is hard to have a healthy discussion about it.

The interesting this is that historically, surveys show the majority of Americans believe America is a nation of immigrants.

They also believe it should be orderly, and not haphazard. So they sometimes feel frustrated if folks are breaking the rules and cutting the line.

Not everyone who has a problem with the system is not automatically racist.

Those coming across the border, or more frequently these days overstaying visas - these are family people looking for a better life for their children.

I always say: it's not like everyone on Ellis Island had their papers straight.

The history of immigration to our nation has always been a little haphazard, a little loose.

Sometimes it was driven by biases. If you look at what was said about the Irish, in the wake of the potato famine - they talk about them in the same way they talk about immigration today.

This is about seeing people, rather than just immigrants.

You may be able to win people over if you can argue that we will create an answer that is fair.


Obama opens the floor for questions

- this could get interesting.

He has promised to avoid current political debates.

Barack Obama in Chicago



Obama tells of his Sunday with a community organisation

I was yesterday with an organisation that helps young men find a pathway out of crime.

Some of whom had rough stories. Some had been shot. Many did not have fathers.

This would be the stereotypical profile of someone likely to get involved in a shooting, or get shot.

What was striking when you sat down with them was: they are young people!

They were not that different from any man aged 18-24.

What was different was the circumstances.

They had grown up, in some circumstances, in foster care. Or their mother was a drug addict. Or they were abandoned.

If you had been in that conversation you would not say these are thugs or predators.

You would say, man, if I had been through what they had been through, maybe I would think the same.

That empathy.


Obama's marriage advice...

Barack Obama throws in some marriage advice.

Listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.

That will save you a lot of heartache and grief.

That's a little tip there.


"We have become a more individualistic society"

Mr Obama replies:

What you said, Harish, about there being a lot of different ways to engage is important.

The PTA is a perfect example. The kind of thing we want to encourage.

There are a bunch of social scientists out there saying the mediating institutions - the PTAs, the Rotary Clubs - that used to bring people together to work on issues; those have declined. Statistics show that people are less likely to be involved in their community than they used to be.

They are not involved in common projects.

We have become a more individualistic society.

Barack Obama in Chicago on Monday

That has some spillover effects, including on empathy, because you are interacting with fewer people.

I think a lot of us who have been in politics a while do see a change.

It used to be that everyone had the same information. We had different opinions on it. But we had the same baseline of facts.

I think the internet has accelerated this.

If everyone is getting their information from their phones, you don't have to confront the rival information.

If you are liberal, you see MSNBC; if you are conservative, it's Fox News.

Or maybe you're just looking at cat videos - which is fine.


Why did you get into politics?

Harish Patel, another of the students, is asked by Mr Obama about his experience of running for office.

He says he was against the Iraq war, and his first political act was to protest against it.

Mr Obama replies:

I agreed with you at the time.

Mr Patel, an immigrant from India, says that he went from protesting to politics because he felt that he was "looking for the most effective way to inspire a whole generation of folks who maybe look like me". 


Is America divided?

Max Freedman, from the University of Chicago, is talking about the challenges of being a Republican at university.

And he says that Americans should talk to people who have different views.

Most people haven't had in their homes for dinner anyone who is different to them - racially, politically.

We cloister ourselves.

We blame politicians for the failure of each of us to engage with each other.

I think a lot of people see politics and think this is ugly, this is mean.

But I think the lack of results stems from the lack of us understanding each other well.

Marco Rubio said it nicely when he said you can't run a country when half of us hates each other.


Obama: "I'm old. I get it."

Biggest laugh yet so far as one of the six students, Max Freedman, from the University of Chicago, begins his comments with the words: "So when you were first elected, I was in eighth grade..."

Mr Obama laughs, and shakes his head.

"Eighth grade? OK, I'm old. I get it."


How do you get people interested in politics?

Barack Obama shares his thoughts on how to make people engaged in politics.

Obama hugs Kelsey McClear, one of the six students on his panel

One of the things I learnt when I was organising - and I think it's true for a lot of young would-be do-gooders.

You show up in a neighbourhood and tell people what they should be interested in.

Instead of listening to what they are interested in, and connecting those needs to areas of policy concern.

The more you can make concrete for people that the reason there aren't enough after school programmes is not just that it's difficult to do; it's about budget.

The reason there is concern about childcare; there aren't enough training programmes in place for child care, and here is what a change in public policy could support.

That's when change is amplified.

One voice rarely changes anything. Two voices, you have a shot. Twenty voices; now we're getting somewhere.


Obama chairing the student discussion in Chicago

Obama moderates a discussion in Chicago



Obama to students: 'Why don't you get involved?'

In the presidential election you have maybe half of your peers voting.

In mid term elections, about a third vote.

I suspect that if you ask a lot of young people about a wide range of issues, regardless of where they sit ideologically, they would say 'yeah, I am concerned about the economy' or foreign policy or the environment.

But a lot feel disempowered.

He then asks the students:

What is it that prompted you to get involved? And what is preventing your friends from doing so?


Obama opens the discussion to the floor

Mr Obama is seated in the middle of six university students.

He has asked them to introduce themselves, and discuss some of their entrepreneurial and campus activities.


How do encourage our future political leaders?

Mr Obama says he wants to encourage future leaders.

What are the ways in which we can create pathways for them to create leadership, for them to get involved?

Barack Obama

He says he wants to "knock down barriers" and to "get this next generation to accelerate their move towards leadership".


Obama on what he plans to do - and concerns

Barack Obama tells his audience of students not to give up hope. He says he is planning on spending his time working out ways to improve the country.

He wants to identify the problems, and the obstacles to solving them.

What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress is due to our political processes.

He mentions gerrymandering, money in politics, special interests, changes in the media.

Everybody is listening to people who already agree with them, and are further enforcing their own reality to the neglect of a common reality.


Obama on his early career

Even though I left after three years to go to law school, the lessons that had been taught to me gave me the foundation for my subsequent career.


Altgeld Gardens in Chicago - where Obama cut his political teeth

Altgeld Garden housing development project, where Obama worked as a community organiser as a young man



Obama telling the story of his life

It was 25 years ago. I had just got out of college. I was filled with idealism about how I was going to change the world.

But I had no idea how.


Barack Obama takes the stage

Hello Chicago!

What's been going on while I've been gone?


Barack Obama returns to Chicago - where it all began

Barack Obama launched his political career in Obama, as an activist working with communities in the city's South Side district.

He has always said that, although he was born in Hawaii, Chicago is his hometown. It is where he met Michelle, and where he launched his career as a senator.

Barack and Michelle Obama, pictured in September 2016

His presidential library will be in Chicago.

So it comes as no surprise that he is holding his first post-presidency speech here.

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