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Barack Obama is betting that young people can save America — and his legacy

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Between windsurfing with Richard Branson and attending Broadway shows with his daughter, Barack Obama has been trying to decide what he wants to get done in his post–White House years.

“I'm spending a lot of time thinking about: ‘What is the most important thing I can do for my next job?’” Obama said on Monday, in his first public remarks since leaving the presidency on January 20.

Obama ticked through a whole host of problems he might make his first priority before identifying what he said will be his No. 1 task in the years ahead — giving young Americans the tools to “to take up the baton” as leaders in politics and business.

“What I'm convinced of is that — although there are all kinds of issues that I care about, and all kinds of issues that I intend to work on — 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,” Obama told a small crowd at the University of Chicago.

It’s worth paying attention to precisely why Obama views helping young leaders as the way he can have the biggest impact in the world without the executive branch at his disposal.

Obama acknowledged that there were huge public policy problems — climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality. But he argued that these crises were themselves the product of a broken American political system, and that this first-order problem would not be solved until young people could transform the political system.

It’s worth noting that young people carried Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012, and they overwhelmingly rejected Donald Trump. And as Obama told Rolling Stone the day after the election, young people voted for Hillary Clinton by a wide margin and are supportive of his legacy.

“We have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy, and low participation rates then translate into a further gap between who is governing us and what we believe. The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people,” Obama said in his Monday speech. “So the question then becomes: What are the ways we can create pathways for them to take leadership — for them to get involved? Are there ways in which we can knock down some of the barriers that are discouraging young people about a life of service?”

A transcript of Obama’s remarks on Monday follows.


... It was a little over 30 years ago that I first came to Chicago. I was 25 years old. I had gotten out of college filled with idealism and absolutely certain that somehow I was going to change the world.

But I had no idea how, or where, or what I was going to be doing. So I worked — first to pay off some student loans, and then I went to work at the City Colleges of New York on the Harlem campus with some student organizers.

Then there were a group of churches out on the South Side who had come together to try to deal with the steel plants that had closed in the area, and the economic devastation that had been taking place, but also the racial tensions, the turnover that was happening in the community. They formed an organization and hired me as a community organizer. I did not really know what that meant — or how to do it.

But I accepted the job. And for the next three years I lived right here in Hyde Park, but I worked in communities like Roseland and Pullman. Working-class neighborhoods, many of which had changed rapidly from white to black in the late '60s, '70s. And full of wonderful people who were proud of their communities, proud of the steps they had taken to try to move into the middle class, but were also worried about their futures, because in some cases their kids weren't doing as well as they had.

In some cases, these communities had been badly neglected for a very long time. The distribution of city services were unequal. Schools were underfunded. There was a lack of opportunity. And for three years, I tried to do something about it. And I am the first to acknowledge that I did not set the world on fire. Nor did I transform these communities in any significant way, although we did some good things.

But it did change me. This community gave me a lot more than I was able to give in return, because this 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.

This experience taught me that beneath the surface differences of people that there were common hopes, and common dreams, and common aspirations, common values that stitched us together as Americans. And so even though I, after three years, left for law school, the lessons that had been taught to me here, as an organizer, are ones that stayed with me, and effectively gave me the foundation for my subsequent political career — and the themes that I would talk about as a state legislator, and as a US senator, and ultimately as president of the United States.

Now, I tell you that history because on the back end now of my presidency — now that it's completed — I'm spending a lot of time thinking about: “What is the most important thing I can do for my next job?”

And what I'm convinced of is that although there are all kinds of issues that I care about, and all kinds of issues that I intend to work on, 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. Because the one thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges — from economic inequality and lack of opportunity to a criminal justice system that too often is skewed in ways that are unproductive to climate change to issues related to violence — all those problems are serious, they're daunting, but they're not insoluble.

What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life. It has to do with the fact that because of things like political gerrymandering, our parties have moved further and further apart, and it's harder and harder to find common ground. Because of money and politics, special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don't match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel. Because of changes in the media, we now have a situation in which everybody's listening to people who already agree with them, and are further and further reinforcing their own realities to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate — and then try to find common ground, and actually move solutions forward.

When I said in 2004 that there were no red states or blue states, they were the United States of America — that was an aspirational comment. And it’s one that — I still believe, that when you talk to individuals one on one — people, there's a lot more people that have in common than divides them. But obviously, it's not true when it comes to our politics and civic life.

Maybe more pernicious is [that] people are not involved. And they give up. And they get cynical. As a consequence, we have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy, and low participation rates then translate into a further gap between who is governing us and what we believe.

The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people. The next generation. And I have been encouraged everywhere I go in the United States, but also everywhere around the world, to see how sharp and astute and tolerant and thoughtful and entrepreneurial our young people are — a lot more sophisticated than I was at their age.

So the question then becomes: What are the ways we can create pathways for them to take leadership — for them to get involved? Are there ways in which we can knock down some of the barriers that are discouraging young people about a life of service?

And if there are, I want to work with them to knock down those barriers. And to get this next generation and to accelerate their move toward leadership. Because if that happens, I think we're going to be just fine.