Former President Barack Obama returns to the public stage Monday morning at the University of Chicago, a homecoming that is expected to serve as a warmup for more visibility in the coming weeks.
The 55-year-old Obama has kept a low profile in the three months following his departure from the White House. He arrived in Chicago on Sunday for his first major visit to the city since he gave his farewell speech at McCormick Place.
Monday’s event comes as President Donald Trump’s administration rolls out its own 100-day narrative, with Saturday marking that milestone since the presidency changed hands.
The 11 a.m. discussion with six Chicago-area students is billed as a “Conversation on Civic Engagement” and will be followed by a handful of national and international events.
Obama is to receive a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in Boston on May 7. Then he flies to Milan for the Global Innovation Food Summit. In Italy, he’ll be with Sam Kass, a good friend and former personal chef both in Chicago and the White House. On May 25, Obama is slated to appear in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
His memoirs are a work in progress too. “He always thinking about” his book, Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said.
Nowadays, the former president has a staff of 20 and an office not far from the White House. Aides handle a deluge of mail and invitations, Lewis said. Friend and former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett has an office in the same building.
Obama is set to make paid, closed-to-the-public speeches here and abroad arranged by the Harry Walker Agency, Lewis said.
And former first lady Michelle Obama is set to elevate her profile soon, planning a speech in Washington on May 12 at an anti-obesity summit hosted by the Partnership for a Healthier America.
In Chicago on Monday, Obama will not give a formal speech, Lewis said. He plans to make opening remarks and moderate a discussion with young people about civic engagement and community organizing.
More than 300 students have been invited, and the conversation is expected to last an hour or so. No tickets were being given to the general public, but a university spokesman said the school plans to stream the event online.
If the weeks past are a prologue, chances appear slim that Obama will launch an all-out attack on Trump on Monday. But Obama might not be shy about stating differences on policy such as climate change and immigration, especially when trying to pass the political baton to young people.
“He sees young people as vital to craft real progressive change,” Lewis said.
Trump’s pugilistic style is in contrast to Obama’s. The former constitutional law professor has so far said little about the new president’s criticism of his administration.
Ex-presidents tend to keep quiet about their successors to let them establish themselves and make their own mistakes, but there’s no ironclad tradition of staying at arm’s length, Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer said. Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton criticized Republican George W. Bush over the Iraq war, for example.
Zelizer predicts that as the public sees more and more of Obama, Trump will continue his condemnations.
Trump launched his political career in part by falsely accusing the Democrat of being born overseas and has “made a career of attacking Obama, his antithesis in policy and personality,” Zelizer said. That he persists is an attempt to shore up support from Republicans who might not embrace Trump but “really dislike Obama’s policies,” he said.
Those policies are a persistent concern for Obama, as Republicans look to replace his Affordable Care Act, Lewis said. Obama’s team wanted the two major parties to work jointly on improvements.
“He’s worried about the people who could potentially lose their health care, and he’s heartened by folks at the town halls who are engaging and voicing their opinions on why they want to keep it,” Lewis said.
Despite those worries, Obama has taken time to decompress after eight years in the White House and his earlier years in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate.
Since he handed Trump the White House keys, the former leader of the free world has been splashed in the papers while on sun-and-sea adventures.
He and his wife have sailed in French Polynesia with Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks. For a time he reportedly got away from it all in Tetiaroa, a French Polynesian island once owned by Marlon Brando. Obama also kiteboarded near the British Virgin Islands in a competition against his host, business titan Richard Branson.
Despite all that, Citizen Obama quietly dropped in on Chicago on Feb. 15 to meet with community leaders about the future presidential center, which is to open in 2021 in Jackson Park on the South Side. Both the center and the nonprofit foundation raising money to build it are a major focus for Obama.
Obama’s spokesman said the former president might return to Chicago soon after Monday’s visit.
“It’s like coming home,” Lewis said.
Skiba writes for the Chicago Tribune.