Back in Chicago, Obama Looks to the Future

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In his first major appearance since he left the Presidency, Barack Obama met with youth leaders from the Chicago area.In his first major appearance since he left the Presidency, Barack Obama met with youth leaders from the Chicago area.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / REUTERS

“Could I just say, I’m old,” Barack Obama said, at his first public event since becoming a former President. He was on a stage at the University of Chicago, with six young people, most of them students at other colleges around the city, and one of them had just remembered doing a school project about Obama’s first Presidential race—for his eighth-grade class. “In eighth grade!” Obama repeated, with a laugh and a wave of his hand, his assertion of his own grizzledness undermined, slightly, by what appeared to be his gum-chewing throughout the event, and by his focus during the discussion on his own younger years, and what politics had meant to him then. The ostensible idea was to explore how the young people at the event and others could become involved. And yet, so fully did Obama take on the role of his older self talking to and through his younger self that, for much of the event, the years in between selves seemed to collapse. He was endearing with the students; he was engaged; he was wise. But neither he nor anyone else mentioned Donald Trump’s name, or Hillary Clinton’s. It was as though the election had never happened—as if he and the Democratic Party had not, quite recently, experienced a disaster

Perhaps that was Obama’s point, or his goal: to move forward past the tangle of what went wrong for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He said that it was time for the next generation to take “their own crack at changing the world.” He talked about the many “pathways” to engagement, including those outside of politics. (There was praise for the Parent Teacher Association, for example.) He talked, more than anything, about speaking directly to people, including those who you might assume would not agree with you. He nodded when Ayanna Watkin, a high-school senior at Kenwood Academy, said that, if politicians would “actually go out to the community, the community would feel more welcome.” He said that the wish expressed by Kelsey McClear, a senior at Loyola College, for politicians to get back to the basics and listen to people—and not just to respond to them but “to understand” them—was a good rule to follow in marriage, too. (“That will save you a lot of heartache and grief.”) He asked the young people about the dangers of fake news, but mostly in the context of urging them to let more voices in, rather than keeping others out, and to emphasize, again and again, the need for establishing trust. (He also told them to be careful about which pictures of themselves they put on social media; if there were images of everything he had done in high school, he said, he probably never would have been elected.) He prompted the lone Republican on stage, Max Freedman, a junior at the University of Chicago, to speak at length about the perception that “colleges are a bastion of political correctness.” When Ramuel Figueroa, a student at Roosevelt University, who is also a veteran, said that he was working on a project that involved interviewing undocumented day laborers, and that many of them seemed much more fearful lately, Obama offered some practiced advice: approach the laborers through someone they already trusted, like a priest; don’t show up the first time with a clipboard. But he added that both sides of the immigration debate needed to hear and to respect each other more. Those who wanted to limit immigration had to remember that they were dealing with human beings, and that not everyone who arrived on Ellis Island had his or her papers in order; but advocates for immigrants’ rights also ought “not to assume those who have trouble with the current immigration system are necessarily racist.”

He might as well have said, “Please, don’t call them deplorables.” At another point, Obama remembered recently attending an event with a group of young men, none of whom had grown up with an involved father, and many of whom had criminal records—“the stereotypical profile of somebody who has a good likelihood of shooting or getting shot, here in Chicago.” But, spending time with those young men, he said, one could see all the ways in which they were not so different from other people their age, except that they had been shaped by circumstances such as familial drug addiction and foster care. “If the six of you had been in that conversation, you would have come away not saying, Oh these are some thugs or super-predators that I can’t relate to,” Obama said. Thugs is a word that Trump uses a lot, but super-predators was one that Clinton had deployed in the nineties in a speech that, as Obama could not have failed to notice, got a lot of play in the 2016 election. Listening to Obama, one had the sense that he was not itching to mock Trump—presumably, there will be time for that in future speeches—but that he wanted, badly, to contribute to a vision of a future Democratic Party that had little to do with him and even less to do with the way that Clinton ran her campaign. Speaking to the students, Obama recalled campaigning for the Presidency in Iowa, and for Senate in the red parts of Illinois where, despite having a name that sounded “Arab,” he was able to give people “a sense that my frames of reference and my values were not so different from theirs.” At a White House press conference a week after Trump’s victory, Obama had also brought up his forays into the red when asked about what had gone wrong for Clinton. This was seen, almost certainly correctly, as a reproach to her more demographics-and-turnout-centered operation. (“Did Obama Just Dis Hillary Clinton’s Campaign?” a Washington Post headline asked.) This time, because of how studiously he deferred to the young people and to their aspirations, the anecdote did not come across so critically, playing less as a post mortem than as practical advice. There was, at least, a suggestion that any one of them might be a better politician than the actual, experienced politicians around them.

Another opening to talk about the 2016 race came when Obama was asked about defeat. Failure, he said, was “terrible,” but it was also “necessary,” if one wanted to learn how to put oneself out there and develop “resilience” and a sense of purpose. Here, again, he reached back not six months but seventeen years, to his loss, in a 2000 congressional race, to Bobby Rush. He suggested that the experience had been good for him, because at the time he had run “more just because it was the next thing, rather than running because I had a good theory about what I wanted to do.” He urged the students to “worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.” This, too, is sound advice, and it may help to produce a successor to Obama in twenty years. It may also be a good reminder for Democrats who need a shorter-term sense of purpose, as they dwell in the minority in Congress and various state legislatures; they need to do some serious thinking about what, exactly, their party stands for. And yet it also stirs up a melancholy note, if one believes that 2016 was what Hillary Clinton’s long career, with its many reverses, was meant to prepare her for.

“Is this another story about how old I am?” Obama said, when Tiffany Brown, who had earned a doctorate in a pharmacy program at Chicago State University, mentioned that she had actually met him once before. It wasn’t; it was a story about how warm he had been when she’d asked, after performing for him with her high-school music group, for a picture. It was, in other words, a reminder of something that Obama had tried to gloss over: that political talents like his are rare and that they do matter. He can bring young people into politics and help them learn its ways. But the Democrats also need a plan for the 2018 midterms and a new standard-bearer for the 2020 elections, and neither of those votes—it can’t be said often enough—is far away. At this event, Obama didn’t offer any direction for that. But there will be others, and today’s modest evangelizing for involvement will likely prove to be a prelude to something much louder. After his post-election vacation, he’s back.