Barack Obama returned to the public stage on Monday with some wry jokes, a smart-casual outfit, and a pledge to direct his post-presidential energy to nurturing the next generation of leaders.
Speaking at the University of Chicago in his adopted hometown, the former US president was relaxed and in good humour, like a man who has been on a long holiday, which he has. He wore a dark jacket and white shirt with tieless open collar and began by quipping: “So, uh, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?”
There was laughter from an audience of community organisers, activists and students, a group unlikely to contain many supporters of Donald Trump, who has made groundless claims of wiretapping against his predecessor and whose 100th day in office is on Saturday.
Obama’s political afterlife - he is still only 55 - has been the subject of much speculation and he has evidently been pondering the issue himself since leaving the White House on 20 January. On Monday he provided an answer: he will concentrate, above all, on trying to fix America’s dysfunctional politics.
“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what is the most important thing I can do for my next job and what I’m convinced of is that, although there are all kinds of issues that I care about and all kinds of issues that I intend to work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”
Issues, such as economic inequality and lack of opportunity, a skewed criminal justice system and climate change, must be confronted, he noted, adding: “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 civic life.”
Obama also highlighted the gerrymandering that he said had driven Democrats and Republicans further apart, the influence of money in politics that lets special interests dominate debates in Washington, and changes in the media that leave people listening to those who already agree with them, “further reinforcing their own realities to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward”.
About 20 or 30 years ago “there was a common baseline of facts”, he added. “The internet has in some ways accelerated this sense of people having entirely different conversations ... Or maybe you’re just looking at cat videos, which is fine.”
Obama reflected on the most memorable line of his breakthrough speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston nearly 13 years ago. “When I said in 2004 that there were no red states or blue states, there were the United States of America, that was an aspirational comment,” he said, to some mirth in the audience. Obama remained serious, pressing on: “And it’s one, by the way, that I still believe in the sense that when you talk to individuals one on one, there’s a lot more that people have in common than divides them. 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.”
The only people able to fix this problem are the young, he said, and now he intends to focus on the barriers that discourage young people from public service. “I want to work with them to knock down those barriers and get this next generation to accelerate their move toward that leadership. If that happens, I think we’re going to be just fine.”
Obama, who had expected Hillary Clinton to succeed him, has kept a low profile since the end of his second term. He has focused on building his foundation and starting to write his memoir, along with taking some holiday time in Palm Springs, California and the British Virgin Islands, where he spent time with billionaire businessman Richard Branson, and on the yacht of music mogul David Geffen near the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. But he issued a statement in support of protests against Trump’s travel bans on several Muslim-majority countries.
On Monday, after brief remarks, the 44th president moderated a panel discussion with young activists and leaders. He hit on themes familiar from his presidency and his earlier career as a community organiser in Chicago. There was also self-deprecation – “I’m old” – and lighthearted advice about the diplomacy of marriage and not oversharing on social media. “If you had pictures of everything I’d done in high school, I probably wouldn’t have been president of the United States,” he said.
He did not mention Trump by name but did offer a coded attack on his anti-immigration crackdown, saying it was important for critics to understand that foreigners coming to the US were “overwhelmingly families who are just looking for a better life for their children. I would say, sometimes in crowds that didn’t want to hear, it’s not like everyone in Ellis Island had all their papers straight.”
Immigration has always been a “bit loose and haphazard”, he continued, sometimes driven by economic imperatives or biases. “If you look what what said was about Irish when they were coming here ... They talked about them the same way people talk about immigrants today ... The realities of seeing immigrants as people, not other, is important.”
But the former president also called on pro-immigration advocates to have “respect” for those who are concerned about the system and not assume they are “automatically racist”. He observed: “That’s an example of us being able to listen.”
About 500 people attended the invitation-only even, which was also televised. Obama, who had given his presidential farewell speech in Chicago in January, evidently relished his return to the spotlight but said at one point: “I’m a little out of practice. Where’s the staff person? How long are we supposed to be here?”
And despite Trump’s attempts to undo his healthcare reforms and much else in his legacy, he concluded on an upbeat note. “There’s a reason why I’m always optimistic even when things are not going the way I want and that’s because of young people like this,” he observed.