It’s time to Break It Down!
This week marked a special occasion in the annals of Presidential observation. No, I do not mean counting the final 72 hours before #45’s one-hundredth day in office. Rather, I am referring to the return of President Barack Obama to the public square. The former POTUS returned to the city where 14 and-a-half weeks earlier, he delivered his farewell address as Commander-in-Chief; that day at McCormick Place, Monday at the University of Chicago.
Mr. Obama’s return was characterized thusly: a “conversation on community organizing and civic engagement,” with the goal to “encourage and support the next generation of leaders.” His design was to create an environment in which he could converse expressly with young people; a group he believes is critical to reviving a flagging, moribund Democratic Party. To be clear, those are my adjectives, not Mr. Obama’s.
The setting incorporated a stage that included Obama and six students, plus an audience of 300 students. The format included brief introductory remarks by the former President, the introduction of the students sharing the stage, the individuals on the stage posing questions of each other, but also taking questions from the 300 students in the audience, who represented colleges and universities throughout Chicagoland.
Spoiler Alert: Despite the imminent proximity of the much bally-hoo’d 100-day mark of the current President, and the torrential stream of blamesplaining targeting Mr. Obama, the previous C-i-C adroitly avoided mentioning #45 or any of his policy prescriptions. There had been rampant speculation about whether the occasion might be used by Mr. Obama to weigh in on his successor and the administration’s first months. This event, however, was not about that. A source from Team Obama said the adopted Chicagoan had no intention of confronting the current administration’s policy, and the often-professorial Obama declined to be drawn down that rabbit hole. In fact, he was so assiduous in giving a wide berth to the topic of the new administration that he neither deigned to defend his own legacy in the office, nor spoke in support of the Affordable care Act, AKA Obamacare, his signature accomplishment, and a program under perennial assault by the GOP.
The occasion certainly could have served as an opening for the former President to beat back unsubstantiated wiretapping allegations made by the current occupant of 1400 Penn Ave., or to take on the often awkward, and occasionally meandering Republican agenda. Never one lacking message discipline, he blithely passed. Alternatively, he opted to lead a seminar on engaging a new generation of youth and prodding them to become active participants in the political discourse and process. Upon reflecting upon how he sees his role in the post-Obama Presidency era, he intoned:
“The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”
Bypassing #45 was clearly the result of Mr. Obama’s own authentic design. He has determined, at least for the time being, that it is prudent to cede criticism of the current administration to those camps that have already elevated doing so to a cottage industry. This appears, in part to be due to reflecting on and appreciating the space his predecessor gave him in the early going. It’s also fair to note that Mr. Obama and his advisors have reasoned that now is simply not the right time to invest time and energy in confronting the newbies.
They realize, after all, that the current administration drew much of its synergy from the mere existence of then President Obama. To that end, they believe that challenging the current administration would make Obama a foil for #45’s efforts to rally his supporters, which in turn, could buttress the efforts of the current administration to enact its policies, which of course, Mr. Obama opposes.
With those predicates, the event at the University of Chicago, where a pre-POTUS Mr. Obama taught constitutional law, transpired absent any tension related to the 45th President. The former President appeared relaxed, casual, and comfortably ensconced in the moment. In other words, he appeared to enjoy himself.
In a moment of reflection, hearkening back to his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which he introduced the notion of their being no “red” America or “blue” America, he conceded the aspirational nature of the assertion, going on to add, that it’s obviously not true as it pertains to our politics and civic life.
By and large, Mr. and Mrs. Obama have elected to avoid the intense glare of the public spotlight since leaving the White House on January 20th. Both have committed to writing Random House memoirs as they continue to make Washington, DC their home while Sasha, their youngest daughter completes high school. She will graduate in 2019. However, in the intervening three months since the Inauguration, they have spent most of their time on an extended vacation, even as his staff has been establishing an office in Washington. Planning is underway for his Presidential Library, which will be located in Chicago.
It is anticipated that Monday’s event in Chicago was the kickoff of a series of public appearances Mr. Obama will make in the United States and Europe. He is scheduled to appear next in Boston for a speech at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, where he will receive the institution’s Profile in Courage award.
At the Chicago event, he discussed various elements of civic engagement, community organizing, and the importance of actively facing the challenges confronting contemporary society. For over an hour, he served as the resident Commander-in-Chief & Professor of interviews. He posed the questions, and kept the “show” moving. He initiateded a variety of queries, including:
- Asking Ayanna Watkins, a senior at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago, about the importance of access to social studies and civic education. She responded, “Awareness is something that holds a lot of youth back from getting involved.”
- Asking Harish Patel, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, why he had chosen to run for the office of state representative last year. His short response was he, “didn’t see many Patels in office and wanted to fix that.”
- Asking Max Freedman, an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and the lone Republican on the panel, about issues of political correctness on college campuses. Freedman answered with a personal anecdote from eighth grade, when Mr. Obama was launching his first Presidential Campaign, prompting the former President to note, “I’m old.” “But please continue. Eighth grade!”
Much of Mr. Obama’s conversation Monday echoed themes from his farewell address in January, including a plea not to take democracy for granted. He underscored his continued concern for issues such as economic inequality, climate change, justice, and the spread of violence. He suggested it was a lack of leadership that stopped the country from making the necessary inroads into solving those problems. He said:
“All those problems are serious, they are daunting, but they are not insoluble. What’s preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and civic life.”
And so, the venerable former Chicagoan, via Honolulu, came full cycle vis-à-vis his Chi-town roots. He arrived in Chicago as a 31 year-old community organizer, steeped in the ways of civic engagement. During his 2008 Presidential Campaign, his opponents belittled his experience (as a community organizer). Arguably, it served him well, as he went on to win twice, serving two terms in the highest office in the land. And now, as he seeks his next career path, he is reprising the tenets of the career that launched him upon the veil of our collective consciousness. “President Obama Returns to Chicago; Revisits Community Organizing and Civic Engagement!“
I’m done; holla back!
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