Former President Barack Obama on Monday gave his first public address since leaving office, moderating a panel with young people on community engagement while dancing around the turmoil surrounding his White House successor.
“So, uh, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” Obama deadpanned at the beginning of his opening remarks at the University of Chicago.
The former president’s re-emergence on the public scene comes just before President Trump’s 100-day mark on Saturday. Since leaving office, Obama has taken an extended vacation with former first lady Michelle, attended Broadway performances and has begun working on his memoirs.
But in moderating the panel of six young civic leaders in the Chicago area, Obama underscored that it’s conversations like these he hopes to facilitate in his next act.
“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what is the most important thing I can do for my next job,” Obama said, adding: “The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can to prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”
While his return to the public eye wasn’t overtly political in nature or in tone, he did bemoan the divisions in the country. He admitted that his famed comment that there were “not red states and blue states” — made during his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address — was “aspirational” but one he still believes in.
He also reflected on the time he spent in Chicago as a community organizer before going to law school, later returning to the University of Chicago to teach constitutional law before he launched his political career.
In regards to that work as a community organizer, “I am the first to acknowledge that I did not set the world on fire,” Obama said, laughing.
But, he continued, the experience he had working for change in the community “taught me that ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things. This community taught me that everybody has a story to tell that is important” and that despite divisions, people have “common hopes and dreams, common aspirations, common values.”