Obama returns: ‘What’s been going on while I’ve been gone?’
In first public appearance since leaving office ex-president does not directly mention Trump
Former US President Barack Obama at the University of Chicago on Monday night. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
In the three months since former US president Barack Obama left the White House, his bereft supporters have been keen to catch a glimpse of the man who seems more than ever a symbol of American liberalism and toleration.
Unlike previous presidents, Obama and his family chose to stay living in Washington DC after his term ended while their younger daughter Sasha finishes high school.
While they are renting a nine-bedroom house in the exclusive suburb of Kalorama, around the corner from President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, the Obamas have kept a low-profile in the capital.
One reason is that they have spent much of their time away. A beaming photograph of Obama kite-surfing aboard a yacht owned by Richard Branson went viral in early February as the world looked-on in disbelief at his successor’s move to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries.
This week marks his return to the public eye. On Monday he held his first public engagement since leaving office, addressing a group of about 400 students and activists at the University of Chicago in his adopted hometown.
“What’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” he smiled, as he took to the stage.
But his supporters may have been left disappointed by his decision not to directly mention Trump during his appearance.
Instead of jumping back into the political fray, Obama stressed the importance of civic engagement and public participation in politics. Noting that statistics show that people are less likely to be involved in their community than before, he said that “we’ve become a more individualistic society”.
“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,” he said.
The closest he came to criticising his predecessor was during the question-and-answer session when he compared current prejudices towards immigrants with how the Irish were perceived in the nineteenth century.
“If you look at what was said about [the] Irish when they were coming here in the wake of the potato famine they talked about them the same way you hear people talking about immigrants today,” he said.
Ironically, the election of the most divisive president in decades may have a silver lining for the Democrats – it has helped to galvanise the liberal base at grassroots level. As Trump approaches his first 100-day mark in office, Democrats in many parts of the country have been invigorated with a new sense of purpose.
One of the problems facing the party, however, is a lack of focus for this new-found energy, with no obvious candidate emerging to fight the 2020 election.
The continuing allure of Obama underlines the need for Democrats to quickly find a figurehead who can unite the party as it struggles to make its mark under a Republican-dominated House, Senate and White House.
In keeping with his predecessors, Obama is unlikely to criticise Trump in public comments. It is understood that the two men have not spoken since inauguration day.
Obama has a number of paid appearances lined up in the coming weeks. On May 7th he will accept the “Profile in Courage Award” at the John F Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston.
The following week he will appear at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, while later in the month he will be joined with his ally while in office, German chancellor Angela Merkel, at an event at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
His paid appearances are likely to command huge fees – another former US president Bill Clinton is said to receive an average of $200,000 (€184,000) for a speech in the years after he was president. Obama is being represented by a public speaking agency that had also represented the Clintons.
However, whether Obama will keep out of the political fray in the coming years remains to be seen, particularly when the presidential race heats up ahead of 2020.
In the meantime his supporters may have to be content with glimpses of a president happy to stay out of the limelight, at least in the short-term.