Obama avoids Trump, talks unity and youth during Chicago return

Obama is also sensitive to creating space for and supporting his former administration officials in their new endeavors, including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is working to mentor young leaders, and former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is focused on redistricting laws across the country.

Next month, he will receive the 2017 Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston and give a private paid speech in Italy. In a panel discussion with college and high school students from U of C, Loyola University, Roosevelt University, the University of IL at Chicago and Kenwood Academy High School, Obama told them about the hardships preventing the nation from advancing from its political divisions, what he plans to do to solve them as a private citizen and what others can do to engage their community. He met privately Sunday with a group of at-risk young men, talking about gang violence and opportunities for jobs.

For the next hour, Obama moderated the discussion, asking the panelists questions about their involvement in civic engagement and community service, which ranged from military duty, to volunteer work in New York's South Bronx, to campaigning in Iowa.

"Worry less about what you want to be, and worry more about what you want to do", he said.

"I think it's important for those who support, as I do, immigration reform and pathways to citizenship for folks who are here, not to assume that everybody who has trouble with the current immigration system is automatically racist", Obama said. The political polarization he decried was on display just outside the hall where he spoke: Three protesters stood outside with white posters taped to their backpacks that read, "Obama, we are not on the same intramural team as Trump". "What is it that you think would make the big difference in young people saying, 'If I volunteer for this, I might make a difference?'" he asked high school senior Ayanna Watkins after pointing out that only a third of young people vote in midterm elections. Obama joked. Brown went on to recall how Obama and other local politicians had an event downtown where the Kenwood Academy concert choir was performing. Of activists, he said, "You need to demonstrate some connection". On the South Side, Omoniyi-Shoyoola continued, "his role as community organizer instilled in him a foundational respect for civic engagement".

One of the forum participants, Harish Patel, who lost a Democratic primary for Illinois House a year ago, asked Obama how to deal with failure. The event marked an end to Obama's self-imposed silence following Inauguration Day earlier this year.

"There's a significant empathy gap, not just here, but everywhere".

During his time in office, Obama relished holding town halls with young people while traveling overseas. There was also self-deprecation - "I'm old" - and lighthearted advice about the diplomacy of marriage and not oversharing on social media.

"There's a reason why I'm always optimistic, even when things look like they're sometimes not going the way I want".

"I would advise all of you to be a little more circumspect about your selfies and what you take pictures of". He never mentioned his successor, Donald Trump, but urged young people to get more involved in their communities at a time of stark political divides. "And that's because of young people like this". "And that's because of young people like this".

And it was Obama's first public event since leaving office January 20, ending a three-month vacation that included jaunts to foreign lands and launching a series of talks and paid speeches and appearances both in the US and internationally.

Eilperin reported from Washington.

  • Leroy Wright