In his first public appearance since leaving the White House in January, President Barack Obama told young leaders here Monday that “special interests dominate the debates in Washington” and that he had failed to realize his “aspirational” goal of uniting Americans in red and blue states.
“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, who has kept a relatively low public profile since the end of his second term, did not mention President Donald Trump during his opening remarks at the event. But he 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 prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton,” said Obama, who sat onstage, wearing a black suit, white button-down shirt and no tie, with half a dozen activists in their teens and 20s.
All of the panel members were Democrats except for one Republican, University of Chicago undergraduate Max 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, as he asked the socially active members of the panel why they got involved in politics. Ramuel Figueroa, an undergraduate at Roosevelt University who had served in the military before starting college, said 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,” Figueroa said. Of activists he said, “You need to demonstrate some connection.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Amber Phillips, Juliet Eilperin