Barack Obama, making his first formal public appearance since leaving the White House, made no mention Monday of the man who replaced him, as he argued partisanship and special interests have poisoned the political process and hindered the search for solutions.
Speaking inside a University of Chicago auditorium to about 400 people, the former Democratic president was relaxed and focused on how he plans to foster a new generation of leaders rather than past political battles or the current occupant of the White House. Obama and the six young adults who joined him on the stage never once uttered the name of President Donald Trump.
“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 near the end of his more than hour-long appearance. ”That is because of young people like this.”
Obama said that the focus of his life outside of office will be the kind of work he did before entering politics, fostering leadership and grassroots engagement. “The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can to prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton,” he said.
The appearance in Obama’s adopted hometown, at a university where he once taught constitutional law, took place as his successor approaches the 100-day mark of his presidency on Saturday. Obama campaigned for Democrat Hillary Clinton during last year’s election, saying Trump was unfit to hold the nation’s highest office.
The former president said technology is partly to blame for a more divided nation. “We’ve become a more individualistic society and that, I think, has some spillover effects when it comes to both political participation, but also in terms of empathy because you’re interacting with fewer people on a regular basis,” he said.
“It used to be everybody kind of had the same information,” he added. “The internet, in some ways, has accelerated the sense of people having entirely separate conversations.”
Citing the debate over immigration laws, Obama said Democrats must also show more understanding for those who favour stricter border control and “not to assume that everybody who has trouble with the current immigration system is automatically racist.”
Pointing to the one campaign he lost — his attempt to win a congressional seat that represents Chicago’s South Side — Obama said that was the one time he ran for office when he was doing so because it just seemed like the “next thing” to do. “Worry less about what you want to be, and worry more about what you want to do,” he said.
Obama’s remarks were closely watched for any hint of criticism of Trump, even if heavily veiled. His decision to maintain a low political profile is playing out as Democrats, searching for a unifying message as well as a messenger to deliver it, face a power deficit in Washington and nationally following election losses for the White House, Congress and statehouses.
Trump has done plenty to provoke his predecessor, including accusing Obama — without evidence — of wiretapping him at Trump Tower in New York during the campaign. In doing so the president called Obama a “bad (or sick) guy,” and Trump has repeatedly blamed the former Oval Office occupant for what he characterises as the “mess” he inherited at home and abroad.
The Chicago event was the first in a series of public appearances that Obama, 55, will make in the coming months. On May 7, he’s scheduled to accept the Profile in Courage Award in Boston from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Two days later, he’ll speak about food, climate change and agriculture at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milano, Italy. He’ll be joined by Sam Kass, a family friend who was his White House chef.
On May 25, Obama is set to appear at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a discussion about shaping democracy. The former president, who is writing a memoir that’s expected to earn him tens of millions of dollars, also will deliver paid speeches both in the US and while in Europe.
Obama’s return to the public stage comes after a months-long, globe-trotting vacation tour that took him to California, the Virgin Islands and French Polynesia. The getaway included a cruise on a yacht owned by media mogul David Geffen with fellow passengers Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey.
While in Chicago, Obama met privately Sunday with a small group of young men to talk about gun and gang violence. The participants were part of a community outreach programme created by Arne Duncan, his long time friend and former education secretary.
Obama hosted a Sunday evening dinner for his presidential library, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The centre, to be built on the city’s South Side, is expected to cost US$500 million or more to build and endow for the future.
The Obamas still own a home in Chicago, but it’s unclear how much time they’ll spend in the city. They’re renting a mansion in Washington until their second daughter completes high school in 2018.
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