Former President Obama stepped into the spotlight Monday for the first time since leaving the White House, but he steered clear of any political commentary or criticism of President Trump.

Cable news networks provided live coverage as Obama convened a youth roundtable in Chicago to talk about participation in civic life. 

“What’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” Obama said with a smile as he sat down, giving a nod to the high public interest in the event.


The appearance at the University of Chicago is the first part of a re-entry to public life for the former president, who has mostly kept quiet since leaving the White House. 

The former president traveled Sunday to meet with at-risk youth in Chicago ahead of Monday’s speech and is slated to make a handful of other remarks and appearances across the globe in the near future. 

Images and videos of Obama windsurfing in the Caribbean, grabbing a Starbucks in New York or congregating with celebrities in French Polynesia have emerged in the last two months.

There has also been the occasional political moment from Obama, who offered a statement highlighting the anniversary of ObamaCare on the day House Republicans sought to pass a bill repealing it.

But Obama has not spoken publicly about Trump’s allegation that the previous administration tapped the phones of Trump Tower, and he’s generally steered clear of politics, a practice he continued on Monday. 

Obama focused much of his introductory remarks on local politics and his post-election goal of helping to “knock down some of the barriers discouraging young people from a life of service.” 

He also laid out a list of challenges that he said are facing the country, including climate change, criminal justice reform, economic inequality and violence.  

“All these problems are serious, they are daunting, but they are not insoluble,” Obama said.  

“What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.” 

He specifically pointed the finger at “political gerrymandering,” which he said has moved the political parties further apart; money in politics, which creates a system where “special interests define the debate in the Washington in ways;" and the polarization of media, which allows people to further enforce their own reality “to the neglect of a common reality.”  

Obama’s remarks came just days before Trump, his successor, reaches the 100-day mark in office.

The relationship between the two men warmed during the transition, but has turned frosty since then. The Hill recently reported that Obama and Trump haven’t spoken since Inauguration Day.


Just over a week after Trump took office, Obama issued a statement expressing support for protests against the White House’s controversial travel ban. 

Then in early March, Trump accused Obama of ordering a wiretap on Trump Tower in the days before the presidential election, an accusation Obama denied through a spokesman.

"A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice," Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said in a statement.

"As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen," he added. "Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."

Obama didn’t mention the surveillance fight Monday, though he did talk about another hot-button political issue, immigration reform.

He said illegal immigration stirs up so much “passion” and “misinformation” that it’s tough to have a rational discussion about how to address it. 


After his introductory remarks, Obama spent the bulk of his time peppering the six-student panel with questions about their own political involvement, a format that allowed for a bit of levity at times.  

Max Freedman, an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, mentioned that Obama’s first election took place while he was in eighth grade. Obama cut him off with a smile.

"Can I just say — I'm old, you know?" Obama said as the audience broke out into laughter.  

"Please continue but, in eighth grade? Golly." 

The closest Obama came to mentioning Trump came at the end of the 90-minute roundtable.  

“There’s a reason why I am always optimistic, even when things look like they are sometimes not going the way I want. And that’s because of young people like this,” he said.

- This story was updated at 2:17 p.m.