Former President Barack Obama returned to his academic roots on Tuesday, visiting the University of Chicago campus where he spent 12 years, and the neighborhood where his life last held some semblance of normalcy.
During a live taping of “The Axe Files” with David Axelrod, director of UChicago’s Institute of Politics, Obama engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that touched not only on the state of American politics, but also the biggest regrets of his presidency and the sacrifices his family made along the way.
Before nearly 500 students at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Obama reflected on his time in Chicago, where he and Michelle Obama bought their first house and began raising their daughters. The simple pleasures the former Law School scholar took in life back then, he said, disappeared upon his historic election as president in 2008.
“You feel launched into space,” Obama said. “You don’t fully recover what you had before. I think the thing that you miss is anonymity. You don’t realize the value of anonymity until you don’t have it.
“The way that manifests itself is simply, you can’t take a walk. That’s what I miss most: Taking a walk.”
Axelrod, AB’76, served as chief strategist and senior adviser to the president. He founded the Institute of Politics in 2013 to ignite in young people a passion for politics and public service. He launched “The Axe Files” podcast in September 2015, and since then, has released over 280 episodes, including interviews with key figures in the political world and beyond, including Mitt Romney, Nancy Pelosi, Jon Stewart, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Doris Kearns Goodwin, John McCain and Justin Trudeau.
His rapport with Obama made for a conversation that felt accessible to a broad audience.
“It was a more casual back-and-forth setting,” said Sachit Agrawal, a first-year in the College. “It gave a different perspective.”
Obama’s visit to campus was his third in recent years and continues his considerable connection to UChicago—from teaching at the Law School for more than a decade to the launch earlier this year of the Obama Foundation Scholars Program at the Harris School of Public Policy. Many of those scholars were in attendance during Tuesday’s taping, giving Obama an opportunity to point out how “constantly amazed” he was by the amount of young talented people he sees in the world.
Olivia Carneiro, a Pearson Institute fellow and an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy, was struck by how Obama highlighted mass shootings and the lack of gun control legislation as the biggest regret from his presidency.
“For me, a foreigner,” said the Brazil native, “it’s good to reflect on how it works here and how it could work in my country.”