Obama's Speech At The University Of Chicago Is The Beginning Of A High-Stakes Journey

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After nearly three months of extended vacation — which included no public appearances following President Trump's inauguration — Barack Obama headlined an event at the University of Chicago on Monday, marking his return to the spotlight. The occasion was billed as a "conversation on community organizing and civic engagement" by the university. "This event is part of President Obama's post-presidency goal to encourage and support the next generation of leaders driven by strengthening communities around the country and the world," read a statement released by his office.

The location of this event undoubtedly added significance to the former president's return to life in the public eye — Obama was a professor of constitutional law for 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School; the university is situated within a section of Illinois he once represented as state senator; and Chicago was where he gave his election victory speeches, in 2008 and 2012, as well as his farewell address.

"It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss," he said in his January farewell speech. "This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it."

Considering Trump's continued attacks and accusations against his predecessor, many wondered if Obama would use the Monday forum to criticize the president more aggressively than the few measured statements he put out after leaving office. Among other things, Trump has, since taking office, criticized Obama for having been too "kind" to Iran, allowing Russia to get "stronger," and having had a "weak" immigration policy. Most notable of all, though, is Trump's unfounded accusation that Obama had phones at Trump Tower wiretapped during the election — which FBI Director James Comey publicly rejected.

Obama and his surrogates largely ignored the president's comments, only acknowledging the arguably necessary ones. Even then, spokespeople and allies for the Obama took the charge of responding to Trump's allegations and criticisms.

Prior to the forum, Obama aides told The New York Times that he would not be attacking the president. Indeed, he largely focused on the purpose of the forum, asking the panel of young high school and college community organizers, entrepreneurs, and activists their thoughts on not only how to get others in their age group to vote in elections but also how to be more active in creating change in communities regardless of whether a national election is taking place.

[T]he single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generational leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world. ... [T]he one thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges — from economic inequality and lack of opportunity, to criminal a justice system that too often is skewed in ways that are unproductive, to climate change, to issues related to violence. All those problems are serious, they are daunting, but they're not insoluble.
What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.

For those looking to make a difference, Obama's insight at the forum will be a good resource to go back to.