Greeted with a standing ovation by a potential audience of 11,000, Barack Obama told a San Diego convention Monday about how he trusted 22- and 23-year-olds with big responsibilities in his 2007 campaign for president.
He recalled how a Chinese-American volunteer from Los Angeles, dispatched to rural Iowa, was called an ethinc slur after he arrived but endeared himself to the town.
The young man set up a booth outside a grocery store, and helped carry elderly shoppers’ bags back to their cars, Obama said. The volunteer (paid perhaps $22,000 a year) heard that a Little League team needed help, so he volunteered to be its coach.
“Some of the moms would cook for him,” the 44th president said. By the end of his presence in town, “he could have been elected mayor.”
Obama used that story — and many others — to illustrate how certain values helped him and others achieve success in his campaign and presidency.
Murmurs could be heard through cavernous halls G and H at the San Diego Convention Center as Obama told the Association for Talent Development about the need for facts and preparation as president — apparently a recognition of the contrast with President Trump’s management style.
The reason the campaign worker had been successful, he said, was not because of Obama’s 10-point plan for dealing with health care or economics.
“The reason was because he was in possession of a set of values that he carried into that situation, transmitted to him by his parents, about sticking to it, about being respectful to people, about being helpful, about being open-minded, about not being discouraged.”
The values Obama (and his wife) got from their families?
“Being honest. Working hard. Being kind. And being useful. Carrying the weight. Being responsible. … Those are the things that will get you through hard times as well as good times,” he said. “Also give meaning and purpose to what you do.”
Taking care not to “editorialize too much,” Obama said that his worries for the country or world weren’t about a particular issue — any given tax policy or environmental regulation.
“That’s how democracy is supposed to work,” he said of such debates. “I worry when our values are not being upheld.”
In comments punctuated by wide applause, Obama said: “Our democracy … can’t work if, for example, we don’t insist on facts. … You can’t make good decisions if we don’t agree at least on the facts.”
We can all have different opinions, “but we have to believe that this is a table,” he said to laughs motioning to the low table supporting his coffee cup. “I mean this in all seriousness. It is important for us to make sure, regardless of our political proclivities, that the values underlying this great country don’t get eroded because, situationally, … it’s convenient for us to abandon our values to get what we want.”
He said democracy isn’t something that happens automatically.
“It is something that has to be nurtured and practiced,” he said. “And our kids are watching what we do. If they see, well, adults aren’t honest or they make excuses or they try to get out of stuff …. over time, we’ll pay a price for that.”
ATD President and CEO Tony Bingham, based with his group in Alexandria, Virginia, asked open-ended questions that Obama could use to craft responses reflecting his different approach to governing.
The 56-year-old son of a African father and Kansas mother relied on values to answer a question about training.
“You’re most effective training somebody else [when you] get them to tap into their best selves, right?” he said to more applause. “Get them to overcome their insecurities. To get them to be open to new ideas and to get them to be respectful of others they are working with. Those things are most of the time what makes or breaks an organization.”
Asked for advice how to make “change happen,” Obama started with the story of how he quit smoking.
He didn’t feel the need at first, he said, even with people saying: Why is someone as smart as you smoking cigarettes and killing yourself?
“I knew it bothered her,” he said of his wife, “but the truth of the matter is it didn’t bother me. Because I was in good shape, I was playing basketball. I looked good,” (leading to long applause and: “I wasn’t actually fishing for those … But thank you, ladies.”).
The reason he quit smoking was his daughters got old enough where they could kind of smell it (he didn’t smoke indoors), and they asked him about it.
“And then I had a choice of either lying to my daughters — confessing to them that I was a smoker, in which case I might be passing on this horrendous habit to my children — or quitting. And I quit,” he said.
Besides being able to “look at yourself squarely” and get the information needed for change, he advised breaking up change “into its component parts,” whose failure is a mistake made in politics, he said.
That gave Obama a chance to defend the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which he called “a starter home” of health-care reform.
He said he was slammed from the left and right as he tried to fix a “legacy system.”
Then he reminded the audience that Social Security was a small program for widows and orphans when it launched in the 1930s.
“And domestic workers were excluded from that, partly because many were African-Americans and Southern senators opposed” extending such benefits, he said. “There were all kinds of things about Social Security that were screwed up.”
“Change is a process that doesn’t happen in one fell swoop,” he said.
The former president had arrived on stage at 8:38 a.m.
“Hello, everyone,” Obama said after a standing ovation. “This is a feisty crowd for this early in the morning.”
He said he saw the line from his hotel room and quipped: “At first I thought maybe Michelle was speaking.”
Bingham’s first question was about the value of education.
“As important as family is,” Obama replied, “it’s also important to have a society that says: You’re important enough that we’re going to invest in you.”
He called for investment in public schools and colleges. And he credited California’s “extraordinary growth” to a public university system he termed “unparalleled — it was the crown jewel — and was affordable, so that people didn’t have huge debt.”
He offered advice — again drawing on his experience (his lone political loss in a 2000 run for Congress from Chicago) — to make a point about how to achieve success.
Despite his Illinois legislative staff saying he had a good shot of beating an incumbent Democrat, it “turned out that only about 11 percent of the people knew who I was. … So that was a good lesson. Always do the poll before you announce that you’re going to run.”
It also taught him to do something because it’s the right thing to do, “because you have something in particular to offer. Not just because you want to be something.”
He said when he talks to people like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, “they didn’t set off saying: ‘I want to be a gazillionaire.’ But ‘this computer thing is really interesting to me and I want to create some software. I want to create the best software.’ Their passion in the work then leads them to achieve extraordinary things.
“And as a byproduct, they end up being gazillionaires.”