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Barack Obama

Former President Barack Obama speaks during the Obama Foundation Democracy Forum at McCormick Place, where he commented on the Israel-Hamas war, job protections amid the rise of artificial intelligence and the importance of economic growth, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Chicago.

Pat Nabong

Barack Obama tells youth they have power at annual Democracy Forum

Former President Barack Obama said he’s convinced that young people can make the world a better place, despite the growing number of challenges to democracy.

Obama spoke at the annual Democracy Forum in Chicago sponsored by the Obama Foundation, with a nod toward Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, the war in Ukraine and growing political strife between American political parties.

“As daunting as all the challenges that we face may be, I stand here convinced that it is within our power — or more specifically within your power — to make this world better,” Obama said before an exuberant crowd at McCormick Place’s Arie Crown Theater. “That’s what this Democracy Forum is all about. It’s an affirmation of our shared, unyielding belief that war and racial division and religious conflict and poverty and hunger and catastrophic climate change are not inevitable.”

Barack Obama gestures to a crowd

“As daunting as all the challenges that we face may be, I stand here convinced that it is within our power — or more specifically within your power — to make this world better,” Former President Barack Obama told the crowd at McCormick Place’s Arie Crown Theater, on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Chicago.

Pat Nabong

The Democracy Forum started as the Obama Foundation Summit in 2017, with goals of gathering experts and thought leaders to cultivate healthier discourse and build a more inclusive economy. This year’s convening took place on the 15th anniversary of Obama’s election and subsequent victory party in Grant Park; hundreds of former Obama staffers and advisers are reuniting in Chicago this weekend.

Actor, writer and producer Baratunde Thurston emceed this year’s program that brought experts and politicians from around the world to talk about subjects ranging from equitable economic inclusion to finding meaningful connections in a digital world.Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett and Maryland Governor Wes Moore talked about why it’s important to strengthen trust in government institutions. There were also sessions designed to test people’s so-called “news chops” — whether they could spot legitimate versus illegitimate sources of information online. Every session was designed to answer the central question of how to form a more equitable world that works for everyone moving forward.

In Obama’s one-hour keynote address, he called capitalism “the greatest generator of wealth and innovation the world has ever seen,” but he said that doesn’t necessarily mean capitalism is good for society — the system has been compatible with castes, slavery, autocracy and more. But just as he believes capitalism has major flaws, he thinks other systems of government do too.

Barack Obama gives speech to a large audience

This year’s convening of The Democracy Forum took place on the 15th anniversary of Obama’s election and subsequent victory party in Grant Park.

Pat Nabong

“Even if we could redistribute all the wealth of every billionaire on Earth to address what rightly feels like an obscene amount of inequity, it still wouldn’t be enough to lift all those people out of poverty. We still need economic growth to do that,” Obama said.

He said unions can help ensure economic equity. Obama said the U.S. social safety net system is “particularly stingy” in contrast to, for example, Nordic countries, which have traditionally paid more in taxes in exchange for more social and government services.

“It is harder to build social trust and hence generous social programs in big diverse countries like the U.S. where, let’s face it, politicians may have an agenda of just wanting to keep taxes low and not have to put in,” Obama said. With some jobs possibly headed for obsolescence due to artificial intelligence, Obama said there should be help for people who transition into jobs that can’t be automated, such as elder care, health care and education.

He said corporations and world economies other than the United States need to do more to combat climate change, which could create political strife through mass migration and cross border conflicts for resources.

“It is a societal choice about values,” he said. “Corporations are perfectly capable of operating efficiently and profitably while considering the impact they have on their workers and on their communities and on the planet and on our democracy.”

Alex Degman is an Illinois statehouse reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @Alex_Degman

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