In a speech at his foundation’s “leadership summit” on Tuesday, President Barack Obama didn’t discuss President Donald Trump or the Russia scandal or the Republican attempts to dismantle Obamacare.
Instead, the former president spoke at length about his time as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago — an experience he cited as crucial for informing the two-day summit that just kicked off at the new Obama Foundation. The event attracted some famous attendees, including Prince Harry, artist Theaster Gates, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as well as musicians like Gloria Estefan, the band the National, and Chance the Rapper.
Obama explained that more than 500 “rising and established community leaders” were attending the event because the foundation was hoping to learn how it could best help young organizers across both the country and around the world. One of the foundation’s goals is to figure out to how give grassroots organizers and young people the tools to convene meetings or rally around a cause. Obama said the project was partly inspired by the job as a community organizer he’d been given by a group of churches in his 20s.
“They had no money, so all they could afford to do was hire me,” he said of the churches. But Obama explained that early experience in local organizing — fighting for a public park in a drug-infested part of town; taking on an environmental crisis at a public housing project — left a profound impact on him. Obama suggested that in his post-presidency, he wants to give young activists from around the world the capacity to organize that he only barely had on the South Side:
The thing that was most exciting for me was the idea of creating a hub, a venue a place, a network in which all these young people across the globe and across the country ... could start meeting each other, and seeing each other, and teaching each other, and learning from each other.
Because if we could create an architecture — a platform — for those young people to thrive, and to grow, and to scale up all the amazing stuff they’re already doing locally, and not to just root themselves locally but to germinate and seed all around the country and all around the world, then there’s no problem we couldn’t solve.
Then there’s no aspiration that we might not reach. And so that’s the plan. That’s the vision.
Obama: “Our goal here is not to create a political movement”
But what was as perhaps as interesting as what Obama said is what he didn’t. As former aides to the president have told me, Obama is acutely aware that whatever he says or does will be interpreted as a rebuke of, or commentary on, Donald Trump. That aversion toward overt political action — or even implicit criticism of his successor — carried into his speech on Tuesday.
“Don’t be partisan. Our goal here is not to create a political movement,” Obama told the summit attendees. “I believe firmly in politics, but the moment we’re in right now politics is the tail and not the dog.”
As I’ve previously reported, some critics have noted that Obama’s post-presidential goals appear to be to combine political goals with apolitical means. “We got into the weakest position in decades through Obama’s attempt to live in a post-partisan world that doesn’t exist,” said Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America. “The president should be doing exactly what everyone else in the Democratic Party should be doing: following the resistance, fighting back against Trump, or getting out of the way.”
Even his speech today referenced the achievements of the civil rights movement, before stressing that the goals of this event were not political. As he has in the past, Obama instead suggested that American politics could not be fixed without first fixing the culture that produced it. “What we need to do is think about our civic culture,” he said.
Obama followed that proclamation up by announcing one ground rule for the summit: Attendees would not be allowed to take selfies. He and Michelle Obama, he added, were interested in having real face-to-face conversations with the event’s participants.
“It sounds trivial,” he added. “But it’s not.”