They’re a long way from the White House.
But here in the halls of the Marriott Marquis, covered in Barack Obama’s old logo of a rising sun for the inaugural summit of his namesake foundation, Democrats were upbeat. Organizing matters! they gushed. Internationalism was cool.
There was a morning meditation and yoga session, and an evening community concert with Chance the Rapper and The National. And in between breakout sessions with titles like “The Adventure of Civility” and “Who Narrates the World?,” people took pastel-colored chalk and filled out a blackboard customized with “I hope _______.” (Samples: “we speak better and listen,” “Americans will see each other,” “my nephews can escape toxic masculinity”).
“Therapeutic,” said one attendee. “The sanity bubble,” said another. An alternate reality, all the attendees at the kickoff of Obama’s new foundation acknowledged, some with nervous snickers, some with big, relieved belly laughs.
Here, when they talk about “the president,” they still mean Barack Obama — as if Donald Trump is still the guy they were laughing at a year ago.
What the Obama Foundation will do, no one quite knows yet — including, admittedly, the former president himself. How the newly launched outfit fits in with like-minded groups or the former president’s own vision of using civic engagement to create political change is an open question, too.
The answers provided at the summit weren’t even close to what desperate Democrats are pining for: that Obama will save them by standing up to Trump, that he’ll stop the nuclear war they’re having nightmares about, or even just provide some reassurance they might start winning House races again.
Whatever the drawbacks, the ex-Obama hands were just happy to be back in their element. The event was a mini alumni reunion, drawing everyone from once-junior staffers to major donors and former Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, walking around by herself with a white leather backpack.
“It’s hard, but you can’t help but be optimistic,” said David Simas, the aggressively enthusiastic Obama Foundation CEO and former White House political director.
These days, Simas is thinking about organizer trainings that reach 150 people at a time. They had three this year, and are hoping for at least 10 more next year.
“They’re not waiting for others. They’re doing it on their own and feeling good about it,” Simas said.
Obama spent two feel-good but amorphous days making pop-in appearances at sessions and watching with bemusement, first as people didn’t realize he was in the room, then at the wave of squeals and applause that swept over as they realized he was there. José Andres was at the hotel bar. Prince Harry was on stage, in jeans.
“Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?” author Anand Giridharadas asked in a New Agey opening speech that touched on the “magic” of connectivity and the “starfish illusion.”
There was no mention of the terrorist attack in New York, Trump’s calling the federal judicial system a joke, or the Republican tax plan — nor, for that matter, Russia or North Korea or Robert Mueller’s indictments. The summit, like the foundation taking shape, was HOPE and CHANGE in bolder letters than they ever were on a Shepard Fairey poster — the purest form of Obama’s sense of taking the long view, talking up youth action and believing history will shift in ways no one can stop.
A lot of people misunderstood his slogan in 2008, Obama said, closing the event.
“Hope does not mean that tomorrow everything’s going to be better,” he said. “Where hope comes in handy is when you’ve put everything you have into something and it hasn’t worked yet —and it hasn’t worked the week after that, and the week after that, and six months later and a year.”
The T-shirts handed out read “One Voice Can Change a Room.” The speaker bios ended with each listing their civic heroes: Lin-Manuel Miranda picked Harry Belafonte, Chicago union leader Adrianna Alvarez chose SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. They browsed the pop-up shop from the University of Chicago’s legendary Seminary Co-Op Bookstore stocked with Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years in Power.”
They squeezed in to hear Miranda and Common talk about art and activism, and of course, “Hamilton.” “If there’s any political takeaway,” Miranda said, “it’s that the limit of our representative democracy is that we get to choose who gets to go in the room where it happens.”
“I wasn’t a believer in the political spirit, but certain things brought change to my life — man, the election of President Obama,” Common said.
Then, naturally, the two finished with a back-and-forth freestyle rap.
“Politics matters,” Obama said, surprising a session Wednesday morning where Kennedy was interviewing former Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi. “The question then becomes how do we change the culture so that people are not turned off by politics but rather turned on by being engaged in politics. And how do we get some of the best talent to say, at some point, this is an option for them?”
“I don’t have all the answers,” he added.
shit is starting to get weird..a president acting like a president but he isnt the president..his adoring adherents still treating him like a living god..
“Obama spent two feel-good but amorphous days making pop-in appearances at sessions and watching with bemusement, first as people didn’t realize he was in the room, then at the wave of squeals and applause that swept over as they realized he was there. José Andres was at the hotel bar. Prince Harry was on stage, in jeans.”
how cool eh?
new logo is interesting as well..a few have tried to decipher it..