CHICAGO — Former President Barack Obama kicked off the inaugural summit of the Obama Foundation here Tuesday, calling it “an experiment in us trying to have a collective conversation.”
Set to be the central focus of his post-presidency, and seeded with Obama’s own ambition to have the rest of his life exceed the impact of his eight years in White House, the foundation launched with programs and goals still taking shape. There have been training sessions for young activists, with plans for more; 20 Obama Foundation fellows will be announced next year out of a 19,000-person applicant pool; and this meeting is meant to be the beginning of creating a hub and network of innovative up-and-coming leaders.
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But, Obama said, “our goal here is not to create a political movement.”
Though he has stayed active in politics — and reappeared on the campaign trail in New Jersey and Virginia just two weeks ago — Obama said he believes he’s up to something bigger, and thereby more curative for what he believes has gone wrong in elections.
“The moment we’re in right now, politics is the tail and not the dog,” he said. “What we need to do is think about our civic culture, because what’s wrong with our politics is a reflection of something that’s wrong with the civic culture, not just in the United States but around the world.”
That thought echoed one he made in more forceful, partisan terms in his event in Virginia for Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor, but it was as close as Obama came to talking politics at the summit, which is expected to be an annual event.
The two-day event will include breakout sessions with a variety of activists and others from the Obama world, as well as speeches ranging from Prince Harry of Britain to “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Obama called on his own roots as a community organizer in this city.
“This is where I got started. This isn’t where I was born. I was born in Kenya … that’s a joke,” he said to mild laughter.
Organizers stressed that the key is to continue sorting out what exactly they will be doing in the decades to come.
“This is the literally the beginning,” said foundation CEO David Simas, who was previously the White House political director. “We are being deliberate over the course of the rest of this year and into next year about testing different approaches and getting it right before we take it to scale.”