The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Chicago, Obama tells young leaders that ‘special interests dominate the debates in Washington’

Obama makes his first post-presidency public appearance in Chicago on April 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

CHICAGO — In his first public appearance since leaving the White House in January, former president Barack Obama told young leaders here Monday that “special interests dominate the debates in Washington” and that getting involved in their communities is the best antidote to the divisiveness dominating the country's politics.

Obama, who has kept a relatively low public profile since the end of his second term, did not mention President Trump once during the 90-minute event at the University of Chicago, but said he was determined to galvanize younger Americans to do more politically because they were the ones best positioned to bridge the current political divide.

“The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world,” said Obama, who sat onstage, wearing a black suit, white button-down shirt and no tie, with a half-dozen Chicago-area activists in their teens and 20s, as dozens more student leaders watched on.

He admitted that he failed to realize his “aspirational” goal of uniting Americans in red and blue states, but said the country is not as divided as it sometimes seems.

“That was an aspirational comment,” the former president said of his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, prompting laughter from the audience at the University of Chicago. He added that when talking to individual Americans from different political backgrounds, you learn that “there’s a lot more that people have in common” than it would appear. “But, obviously, it’s not true when it comes to our politics and our civic life.”

Obama's post-presidency is like no other

In keeping with his previous vow not to criticize his successor, Obama — speaking days before Trump's 100-day mark — made little mention of Republicans' rush to dismantle his legacy back in Washington as quickly as possible. Republicans are debating whether to try again this week to dismantle parts of the Affordable Care Act after failing to vote on a bill in March. Trump has signed executive orders and bills from Congress undoing Obama-era regulations on everything from climate change to guns. And the Senate just appointed a conservative to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court after refusing to hold nomination hearings last year on Obama's pick, D.C. Circuit Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland.

Obama referred to none of that. Instead, he focused on political polarization, which he ascribed to gerrymandered electoral districts, money in politics, a politicized media and voter apathy, especially among young people.

“The one thing I'm absolutely convinced of is: Yes, we confront a whole range of challenges, from economic inequality and lack of opportunity, to the criminal justice system to climate change to issues related to violence. All those problems are serious, they're daunting,” Obama said. “But they're not insolvable. What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.”

The session, which took place at an intimate hall near where he got started as a community organizer, and a few miles away from where he gave his carefully orchestrated farewell address this year, marks the start of public appearances the former president will deliver in the United States and overseas. He'll be in Boston next month to receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and in Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy to attend the The Global Food Innovation Summit.

His wife, Michelle, for her part, will deliver her first paid speech Friday in Orlando at a meeting of the American Institute of Architects.

On Sunday, Obama had met behind closed doors with members of Chicago Create Real Economic Destiny (CRED) program, an initiative headed by his former education secretary, Arne Duncan, which aims to provide job opportunities for the city's at-risk young adults. An aide said in an email that the meeting was “the first in ongoing conversations and efforts” by the Obamas to work with private and public groups “that are committed to tackling violence, poverty and unemployment in communities around the country.”

Monday's audience was filled mostly with aspiring Chicago-area college students, dressed in their best suits and ties, many of whom grew up watching and cheering Obama's political rise.

Jon LeVert and Marquise Davion, both student government leaders and film majors at the Columbia College Chicago, said they were looking for the former president to give some assurance that things aren't as bad as they hear it is in Washington, and a road map on how to make things better in their communities.

“We have these people excited to do something, it'd be great to hear from him: You can do this by x, x and x,” Davion said.

While Obama tried repeatedly during the event to emphasize the legitimacy of different political viewpoints, noting that many Americans want immigration to be “lawful and orderly” and that it is important “not to assume that everybody who has problems with the current immigration system is racist,” it remains unclear whether the message he was hoping to convey would take root. The political polarization he decried was on display just outside the hall where he spoke: Three protesters stood outside with white posters taped to their backpacks that read, “Obama, we are not on the same intramural team as Trump.”

As he talked on stage, the former University of Chicago law professor sounded less like a lecturer than an inquisitor. “What is it that you think would make the big difference in young people saying, 'If I volunteer for this, I might make a difference?' " he asked high school senior Ayanna Watkins after pointing out that only one-third of young people vote in midterm elections.

As Obama pressed the point, panelist Ramuel Figueroa offered that activists need to “connect personal problems to policy issues” to get people invested in elections.

“If you’re working two jobs and can’t afford day care, it’s not because you’re lazy,” said Figuero, an undergraduate at Roosevelt University who had served in the military before starting college. Of activists, he said, “You need to demonstrate some connection.”

And Obama probed the political divide that exists on college campuses, which tend to be overwhelmingly liberal. All of the hand-picked panel members were Democrats except for one Republican, University of Chicago undergraduate Max M. Freedman. Asked by Obama whether he has a hard time being heard on a college campus as a Republican, Freedman replied, “You can expect some level of ostracization from certain people.”

“There’s a significant empathy gap, not just here, but everywhere. … We’ve cloistered ourselves,” Freedman said. “Civic engagement, at some point, will require a level of civility.”

During his time in office, Obama relished holding town halls with young people while traveling overseas. Monday's event had a similar feel, though he was visibly looser than he was while serving as president. Even as he bemoaned how Americans had created news silos through their social media feeds, he joked, “Or maybe you're just looking at cat videos, which is fine.” At another point, he noted that while his use of marijuana in his youth had not hurt his political career because he was forthright about it, “I would advise all of you to be a little more circumspect, in terms of your selfies.”

Obama's re-entrance into the public spotlight comes at a time when there really is no clear leader of the Democratic Party, and its grass-roots base is demanding one.

The former president did not mention his party's struggles after its disappointing 2016 election, but he said he wants to be a resource for young people looking to get involved politically, especially through a post-presidency foundation he is setting up. He framed engaging younger people as the best antidote to a divisive Washington.

“There's a reason why I am optimistic, even when things aren't going the way I want,” he said as he wrapped up his appearance. “And that's because of young people like this.”

Obama's interest in young leaders heartened Dorian Meighen, a student at Roosevelt University: “All that he did, he will still continue doing, and he'll still be there to help people even though he's not in office.”

Eilperin reported from Washington.