President Obama blamed the press, partisan gerrymandering and big money for ruining American politics, as he delivered his first post-presidency remarks Monday where he got his own political start in Chicago.
Former President Obama told his supporters Monday that they shouldn’t immediately assume that someone who wants stricter enforcement of immigration laws is “automatically racist,” as he called for a new understanding and engagement in American political life.
Returning to the public stage for the first time since leaving office, Mr. Obama said his chief post-presidency goal will be to try to spark a resurgence of interest in politics and to push for an army of community organizers and leaders among young people.
The former president offered some post-office introspection, saying his first political failure, in a bid for a U.S. House seat in the 1990s, was because he sought office for the wrong reason — “because it’s the next thing.” He said he needed to figure out not what he wanted to be, but what he wanted to do, before he became politically successful.
Speaking to students at the University of Chicago, where he used to teach constitutional law, he also said he’s lucky his younger life wasn’t saturated by today’s social media, saying that his political rise might have been derailed if photos of his drug use were online for all to see.
“If you had pictures of everything I’d done when I was in high school, I probably wouldn’t have been president of the United States,” he acknowledged.
Mr. Obama was offering advice to a diverse group of students and recent graduates who are involved in community engagement, and who the former president help up as models for other young adults to follow as they try to build bridges and engage their communities.
Asked by one young man about efforts to talk to illegal immigrants, Mr. Obama said both sides of the debate need to do more to understand each other.
“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. That’s an example of us being able to listen,” he said.
But he said those who want to see current immigration laws enforced need to see the flow of people coming to the U.S. without permission as “families just looking for a better life for their children.”
“It’s not like everybody at Ellis Island had all their papers straight. The truth is the history of our immigration system has always been a little bit haphazard, a little bit loose,” he said.
The former president lamented a drop in political engagement among young people, and said that’ll be a major focus as he writes a book on his political life and plots his next steps post-presidency.
“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,” he said at the University of Chicago, where he once taught constitutional law.
Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to reignite the youth movement that helped drive him to two massive electoral victories, but which has appeared to sour on politics in the years since Mr. Obama’s second win in 2012.
The former president has been relatively silent since leaving office in January, though he did take a victory lap on the seventh anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
While Mr. Obama was a divisive figure during his time in the White House, his successor, President Trump, has been even more fractious, battling his own party as well as Democrats to try to notch major accomplishments.
Mr. Obama didn’t delve directly into comparisons with Mr. Trump, but did lament a drop-off in voting rates among young adults, and recounted his own political awakening.
“I was 25 years old and 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,” he said.
MSNBC and CNN took Mr. Obama’s event live for much of the noon hour, while Fox News stuck with its regular program.