In his first public remarks since leaving office, former President Barack Obama said he is hoping to inspire young leaders and “help them take a crack at changing the world.”
“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what is the most important thing I can do for my next job,” Obama said Monday while leading a panel discussion on community organizing and civic engagement at the University of Chicago. “And what I’m convinced is that, while there are all kinds of issues that I care about, and all kinds of issues I intend to work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership take up the baton.”
Obama said “political gerrymandering” in Washington is preventing the country from tackling problems like economic inequality, a broken criminal justice system and climate change.
“All those problems are serious,” Obama said. “They’re daunting. But they’re not insoluble.”
“Our parties are moving further and further apart,” he continued. “And it’s harder to find common ground.”
The former president also decried the echo chamber caused by the changing media landscape and smartphone-connected culture.
“We now have a situation in the media where everybody is listening to people who already agree with them,” Obama said. “The only folks that are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people.”
The president said his experience as a community organizer in Chicago gave him the foundation for his subsequent political career.
“I did not set the world on fire, but it changed me,” Obama said. “The experience taught me that everybody has a story to tell that is important.”
Obama — who has spent the last three months on an extended vacation that included stops in Palm Springs, Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island and French Polynesia— did not mention President Trump by name.
“So, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” he joked as he took his seat on the panel.
The discussion also showcased the former president’s self-deprecating sense of humor.
When one of the panelists said he was in 8th grade in 2008 during Obama’s first election, Obama interrupted him.
“Can I just say, I’m old,” the 55-year-old ex-president said. “But please continue.”
Another lighthearted moment came when a member of the panel said she’s learned to “listen to understand rather than listen to respond.”
“Yeah, I’ve learned that in marriage,” Obama said. “Just a tip for you young people.”
Obama also joked that if Facebook and Instagram had been around when he was younger, he might never have made it to the Oval Office.
“If you had pictures of everything I had done in high school, I probably wouldn’t have been president of the United States,” he said.
Obama closed the discussion with some advice to those aspiring to public office.
“Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do,” Obama said. “Some people may be successful in chasing that goal, but when they get there they don’t know what to do.”