Obama re-emerges in public after avoiding political spotlight

Updated 3:56 AM EDT, Tue April 25, 2017
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 24:  Former U.S. President Barack Obama visits with youth leaders at the University of Chicago to help promote community organizing on April 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The visit marks Obama's first formal public appearance since leaving office.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 24: Former U.S. President Barack Obama visits with youth leaders at the University of Chicago to help promote community organizing on April 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The visit marks Obama's first formal public appearance since leaving office. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the crowd during a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rally at the Anaheim Convention Center on September 8, 2018 in Anaheim, California. This is Obama's first campaign rally for the 2018 midterm elections. (Photo by Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)
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Former U.S. President Barack Obama, left, delivers his speech at the 16th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, July 17, 2018. In his highest-profile speech since leaving office, Obama urged people around the world to respect human rights and other values under threat in an address marking the 100th anniversary of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela's birth. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
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Story highlights

The 44th president is slated to speak with young leaders at an event at the University of Chicago

Obama doesn't intend to take swipes at Trump, but he plans on being forthcoming on policy matters

(CNN) —  

Speaking in public for the first time since leaving the White House three months ago, former President Barack Obama on Monday avoided criticizing his successor, disappointing anyone who was hoping for a clash between the ex-president and President Donald Trump.

In a nearly 90-minute forum, Obama laid out lessons he learned as a young community organizer here in Chicago decades ago and vowed to help bring up the next generation of leaders. He did not once mention Trump’s name.

The University of Chicago hosted the event, billed by Obama’s office as a “conversation on community organizing and civic engagement.” The highly anticipated public appearance happened just days ahead of the symbolically significant 100-day mark for Trump – a milestone that one Obama adviser insisted is “far from” the former president’s mind.

In fact, Obama made clear on Monday that he has little interest so far in reemerging as a figure and spokesperson for the Democratic Party, notably declining to comment on issues like health care and foreign policy.

“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what is the most important thing I can do for my next job?” Obama said onstage. “The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership, to take up the baton, and to take their own crack at changing the word.”

While Obama did not intend to directly confront or take swipes at Trump on Monday, an adviser said he wanted to be forthcoming – if asked – about where he stands on specific policy matters, including areas where he and Trump clearly disagree, a source said.

The closest Obama got to wading into a politically charged issue was when he discussed immigration, as he referred to many undocumented workers as simply “families who are looking for a better life for their children.”

“It’s not like everybody on Ellis Island had all their papers straight,” Obama said. “The truth is, the history of our immigration system has always been a little bit haphazard, a little bit loose.”

After months of quiet travel, Obama to speak in Chicago

Obama, 55, reflected on the fact that when he came to Chicago more than 30 years ago as a 25-year-old, he was “filled with idealism and absolute certainty that somehow I was going to change the world.”

“But I had no idea how,” Obama said. “I am the first to acknowledge that I did not set the world on fire. Nor did I transform these communities in any significant way.”

He later joked that the famous line from his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 – that there are not red states or blue states, but that there is rather one united country – was an “aspirational comment.”