After two terms in the White House and three months of vacation, former president Barack Obama is back in the spotlight. For his first public appearance since leaving Washington in January, Obama returned in late April to the South Side of Chicago, where he famously worked as a community organizer and served as a state senator.
Chicago is a special place for the former president. Not only is it the location where Obama delivered his farewell address and made his first public appearance post-presidency, but it was the neighborhood where he first experienced the power of political organizing. “This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get engaged,” Obama said in the launch video for his presidential library. He later went on to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School while his children were attending the University’s Laboratory School. Former first lady Michelle Obama calls the area “home” and considers herself a “South Sider.” Jackson Park, located on the South Side of Chicago, has been selected as the location for the Obama Presidential Center, which will include his presidential library, forum center, and museum.
In his post-presidency, Obama has articulated his mission of working with youth and supporting the next generation of leaders to get involved with civic engagement. During his visit, Obama spoke directly with students and listened to their concerns about political polarization. At a discussion held at University of Chicago on April 24, Obama said that his goal was to “help prepare the next generation of leadership to take their own crack at changing the world.”
“It is a long walk to greatness—and few men understand this as well as former president Barack Obama,” said second-year Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola as he introduced the former president before a packed audience at the Logan Center for the Arts.
“What’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” Obama asked joyfully as he kicked off his discussion-based forum on community organizing and civic engagement. The event included a student panel, where the former president asked most of the questions and listened intently to what the students had to say. The panel was comprised of six students from different academic institutions around the city who ranged from high school to graduate school. Max Freedman, who studies political science at the University of Chicago, sat on the panel as both the sole Republican voice and the sole University of Chicago student. “I later found out that there was concern that a Republican might not do it,” Freedman said. “But I think that’s a terrible reason not to go on a panel.”
However, several University of Chicago students were uncomfortable with a Republican representing the university on the panel. Anthony Downer, a fourth-year in the College and the president and founder of the Institute of Politics Leaders of Color initiative, said he acknowledges that “Max is a great person … [whose] thoughtful input attests to the intellectual environment of UChicago.” After the event, though, Downer pushed back on the idea that “to have true diversity we need a conservative, or that we need white students to be present.” Rather, Downer argued that “the conversation could have benefited a lot from more intersectionality, and a more nuanced view on experiences. There was no one on the stage that spoke from a queer perspective, who talked really from a poverty perspective, or from a perspective outside of education, whether it is a K-12 education or higher education.”
Other students believed Freedman’s voice was critical for the success of the event and the former president’s mission. “Democrat or Republican, anyone who made fun of Max Freedman or UChicago for his incredibly articulate, well-balanced, and thoughtful performance on [the panel] fundamentally missed the entire point of what President Obama was trying to convey,” IOP communications intern Patrick Quinn argued. Omoniyi-Shoyoola joked that anyone concerned about the lack of a strong enough Democratic stance on the panel need only remember that “Barack Obama himself was on stage” and that the audience was “not only getting a Democrat, but the Democrat.”
Freedman offered his own comments on the importance of including differing political perspectives in the dialogue. “I think that President Obama would tell you that the country is stronger if there are two functional parties that are competing in a marketplace of ideas, rather than having one wither and die, and that does require engaging young Republicans,” he said. As for the selection of student voices on the panel, Freedman noted that “everyone was chosen to be representative of an affinity group—not necessarily their school—everyone was carrying the banner for something, but mine seemed to be the most unusual.”
Eleanor Khirallah, a current IOP house intern who was also at the panel, added that she “would have preferred to just hear [President Obama] speak rather than [listening to] a panel.” However, she added that “his affirmation of young people’s participation in politics is really important right now.” Other topics ranging from political polarization to immigration to campus activism and free speech on college campuses were discussed.
“The internet in some ways has accelerated this sense of people having entirely separate conversations,” Obama said. “If you’re liberal, then you're on MSNBC. If you’re a conservative, you're on Fox News.” The message that former president Obama conveyed throughout the discussion was that young people needed to engage with one another in order to get past these obstacles.
Obama brought a casual tone, charisma and humor to his first public event, which connected with many of the students in attendance. He appeared on stage without a tie, and his panelists were advised to dress more casually as well. “It can certainly be intimidating to meet the president, and he didn’t make it that way—all of us seemed to be at ease up there,” Freedman said. Omoniyi-Shoyoola added that “the overall mood was a degree of relaxation, but also apprehension, and excitement” backstage, as the student panelists prepared to converse with the former president and debated how to introduce themselves on stage. “If you had pictures of everything I’d done in high school, I probably wouldn't have been president of the United States,” Obama joked. “I would advise all of you to be a little more circumspect about your selfies and what you take pictures of.”
The event was by no means policy-focused and both the former president and the panelists steered clear of making any policy-related comments. Although the discussion took place only a few days before President Trump’s one hundredth day in office, neither Obama nor the panelists mentioned the words, “Donald Trump,” during the hour-long discussion.
Downer wishes there was more of an emphasis on how people can get involved in the political process “who don’t have access to higher education,” and felt that while the event met expectations, it was not anything new. IOP house intern Andrew Mamo, who also attended the talk, argued that Obama was equally successful as a listener and moderator and as a speaker, adding that it was clear that after “he has spent the better part of a decade answering questions … it seemed that he so much enjoyed asking them this time.”
“His legacy is still being understood, cemented, and challenged, but the man stands as ready as ever to assume one of the most essential roles in democracy—that of a citizen,” Omoniyi-Shoyoola said in his introduction. This legacy will stem largely from the future presidential center, which will be located near the University of Chicago. “It's not just a building. It's not just a park. Hopefully it's a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side,” Obama said at an event on May 4 at the South Shore Cultural Center.
Obama is expected to make more visits to Chicago over the course of the next few years as the Obama Foundation develops the new presidential center, which is scheduled to be completed by 2021. “With the foundation on the South Side, we’ll be able to give something back home after this incredible journey,” Obama said. Students at the University of Chicago and around the city will be waiting for his return, excited for similar opportunities to engage with the former president.
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Dylan Wells is a fourth-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at CBS News in the Political Unit. Previously, she interned at ABC News' Washington, DC bureau as a Political Unit Fellow, twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. Last year she served as The Gate's Editor-in-Chief, and before that she served as the Elections Editor. Dylan was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.