After a three-month hiatus from the political spotlight, former President Barack Obama returned to his home city of Chicago on April 24 to discuss community and civic engagement with student leaders.
Former President Barack Obama listens to Ramuel Figueroa, second from left, as Kelsey McClear, left, and Tiffany Brown participate in a conversation on civic engagement and community organizing, Monday, April 24, 2017, at the University of Chicago in Chicago. It’s the former president’s first public event of his post-presidential life in the place where he started his political career. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Serving as panel moderator, Obama prompted questions to six college student panelists about their views on the future of politics, civic engagement and how social media shapes information the public receives.
A former community organizer, the 44th president said his early public service in Chicago was paramount in shaping his approach to politics. Furthermore, he noted that civic engagement goes beyond just politics and campaigning.
“Sometimes, people think if you’re not running for office, or it’s not Election Day, then there’s no way to get involved,” Obama said.
Advising an audience full of college students, he said “your ability to create trust and relationships makes all the difference,” noting the importance of doing so in the current political climate.
Former President Barack Obama hosts a conversation on civic engagement and community organizing, Monday, April 24, 2017, at the University of Chicago in Chicago. It’s the former president’s first public event of his post-presidential life in the place where he started his political career. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Obama noted that people are having disparate and often divisive conversations with “one set of opinions” that increases political polarization. He also noted that membership numbers are declining among volunteer community groups, such as church organizations, rotary clubs, non-profit groups, and fraternities and sororities.
“We’ve become a more individualistic society,” Obama said, adding that there is less empathy due to fewer interpersonal interactions.
Pointing out the expansion of niche communities and the rise of social media platforms, Obama said, “If this generation is getting all their information through their phones, then you really don’t have to confront different opinions.”
University of Chicago student and panelist Max Freedmen, a GOP student leader, pointed out that the future of bipartisanship, particularly amongst youth on college campuses, is under fire because of lack of discussion and the “cloistering of groups.”
“Civic engagement at some point will need to involve civility,” Freedman said.
Obama also discussed voter apathy, gerrymandering and the politicized media. About his post-presidency pursuits, Obama said “the single most important thing I can do is prepare the next generation to take up the baton, and to take their own crack at changing the world.”
Since returning to the public eye, the former president has generated criticism for some of his selections of speaking opportunities.
Former President Barack Obama smiles as he hosts a conversation on civic engagement and community organizing, Monday, April 24, 2017, at the University of Chicago in Chicago. It’s the former president’s first public event of his post-presidential life in the place where he started his political career. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
On April 25, Obama spokesperson Eric Schultz confirmed that the 44th president is slated to be the keynote speaker at Cantor Fitzgerald’s annual healthcare conference. Obama will receive $400,000 for speaking at the Wall Street firm’s event—the same amount as his yearly salary during his presidency.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma), who has voiced her discontent with corporate money in politics, said she was “troubled” to learn about Obama speaking at the conference.
Schultz, however, pointed out that Obama “raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history” and his life after the White House is about more than getting paid for speaking engagements.
“He’ll continue to give speeches from time to time, he’ll spend most of his time writing his book and as he said in Chicago this week, focusing his post-presidency work on training and elevating a new generation of political leaders in America,” Schultz said.