Obama Re-Enters Public Eye At Community Engagement Panel In Chicago

Apr 24, 2017
Originally published on April 24, 2017 4:05 pm
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Former President Barack Obama re-entered public life today with an appearance in Chicago. He kept it decidedly nonpartisan. NPR's Tamara Keith reports from Chicago.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Obama walked out onto stage at the University of Chicago and back into the public eye wearing a suit but no tie.

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BARACK OBAMA: So what's been going on while I've been gone?

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KEITH: Plenty, but Obama wasn't there to wax on about current events.

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OBAMA: I'm spending a lot of time thinking about, what is the most important thing I can do for my next job?

KEITH: In about 90 minutes before an invited audience of students from area colleges, Obama avoided weighing in on his successor in any way, keeping the focus on the thing he says will be the mission of his post-presidency.

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OBAMA: 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, to take their own crack at changing the world.

KEITH: He reflected back on his own efforts to bridge the political divide.

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OBAMA: You know, 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.

KEITH: There was laughter in the room given the current partisan polarization in America. But even worse, he said, is that so many people just aren't involved. They've gotten cynical. The former president was joined on stage by six young people who are active in their communities in one way or another, including a young man who ran for office but lost. Obama lost a campaign once, too, he said.

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OBAMA: 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 it is that I wanted to do.

KEITH: The former president then offered some advice.

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OBAMA: Worry less about what you want to be, and worry more about what you want to do.

KEITH: Obama spent a lot of his time on stage listening to the young people and quizzing them about what got them involved in civic life, how to convince their peers to be more engaged and even about the influence of social media on politics. Obama talked about the declining influence of institutions in America, fewer people in unions, civic groups, PTAs or attending church.

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OBAMA: 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.

KEITH: And maybe he was trying to bridge that divide a little bit right there on stage by including Max Freedman in the conversation. He's active in the University of Chicago's young Republicans group and said he appreciated that the former president's first foray back into public life was about gathering information.

MAX FREEDMAN: You know, I think this is the first step. I don't think that you're going to teach community engagement to a nation tomorrow. He's a young guy. I mean you can tell him this. I think he looks younger in person. But you know, over the course of time, if he can kindle any sort of interest in young people to engage in this process and to make their communities better and to be productive that way, it's certainly a worthy goal.

KEITH: Just as a presidency isn't defined by its first 100 days, a post-presidency isn't defined by the first public event. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Chicago.

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