Barack Obama, making his first major appearance since leaving the White House, made no mention on Monday of his successor, Donald Trump, but urged young people to get more involved in their communities at a time of stark political divides.
“What’s been going on since I’ve been gone?” joked the former Democratic president as he moderated an event at the University of Chicago in the city where he began his political career and which will be the site of his presidential library.
Obama, who once taught constitutional law at the school, recalled starting out as a young community organizer in the city and told a panel of six current and former students that he decided to focus his post-presidency on encouraging young people to engage with their communities.
“The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world,” he told an audience of several hundred people.
Obama has largely stayed out of the public eye since leaving office in January despite efforts by Trump and the Republican-led Congress to undo much of his legacy, including on healthcare and the environment.
Trump, a Republican, has said he “inherited a mess” and accused Obama in March, without providing evidence, of wiretapping his 2016 presidential campaign. Obama has denied the charge and FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing he had seen no evidence to support the allegation.
Obama was not asked about Trump by the students and he took no questions from reporters.
Saying it had long been his goal to bridge the country’s deep political divide, Obama said: “It’s harder and harder to find common ground because of the money in politics.”
“Special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don’t match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel,” he said.
Obama added that changes in the way people use media allow them to converse just with those who agree with their own points of view.
On Sunday, as part of a program to help at-risk young people, Obama met privately with men from Chicago’s troubled South Side to discuss solutions for the violence and joblessness that have marked that neighbourhood.
The former president, who together with his wife, Michelle, recently struck a two-book, $65 million memoir deal, is expected to travel to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel next month.