Washington - He’s been photographed kite-surfing with Richard Branson off Necker Island, relaxing on David Geffen’s yacht in French Polynesia with Bruce Springsteen and Oprah Winfrey, river-rafting with his family in Bali and posing with a celebrity chef in Tuscany.
To those who have paid only casual attention to former US president Barack Obama’s foreign travels since he left the White House in January 2017, it can seem as if Obama has been on an extended vacation of the kind only the very rich can afford.
But the former president has also met quietly with groups of young people in New Zealand, Brazil, Indonesia and Singapore, as well as paying calls on foreign leaders, including Xi Jinping of China, Emmanuel Macron of France, Justin Trudeau of Canada and Malcolm Turnbull of Australia.
Now, Obama is inaugurating his most significant international project as an ex-president, with an announcement on Monday that the Obama Foundation plans to convene 200 young people this July in Johannesburg for five days of meetings, workshops and technical training.
At the same time, Obama will deliver a lecture to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, whom he eulogised after his death five years ago by saying he “makes me want to be a better man.”
The choice of Mandela and South Africa are freighted with symbolism for Obama at a time when his political legacy is being dismantled by his successor, President Donald Trump, who crudely disparaged African countries and complained about laws that would protect immigrants from those places.
“It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former speechwriter for Obama who still advises him.
“Mandela,” he added, “endured far darker times than anything we’re enduring today.”
Obama does not plan to take on Trump directly, in keeping with his practice of not publicly criticizing his successor. But Rhodes said he would not shrink from confronting the divisive issues raised by the Trump presidency.
“There’s an enhanced sense of tribalism in the world,” he said. “Our unifying theory is that the best way to promote inclusive and democratic societies is by empowering young people in civil society.”
Obama, he said, views this as the most important speech he has given since leaving the White House, one that will set the tone for his post-presidency. Mandela was a beacon to Obama, inspiring what he once said was his first “act of political activism” — a speech he gave as a student at Occidental College for the anti-apartheid movement.
He laboured over his eulogy to Mandela, rewriting Rhodes’ draft from top to bottom in longhand - something he had done only once before, with his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Rhodes said he expected the former president, with more time on his hands now, to write this speech himself.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, remained in Washington after he left office, so their younger daughter, Sasha, could finish school. But they have kept a low profile in the capital. Much of Barack Obama’s time is spent working on his presidential memoir. He has largely steered clear of domestic politics, though aides said they expected him to return to the campaign trail as the midterm elections draw closer.
Overseas, however, Obama has cut a wider swath. He has visited 16 countries for speeches or meetings, drawing crowds and VIP treatment everywhere he goes. In Beijing, Xi invited him to a private dinner to sound him out about political developments in the United States.
The Obama Foundation’s emphasis on developing young people, Rhodes said, is consciously different from the focus of other foundations, like those of Bill Clinton or Bill and Melinda Gates, which tend to concentrate on solving specific problems. He said it drew on Obama’s roots as a community organiser in Chicago.
“When I was in my last year in office, part of what I asked myself is, ‘What would be the most important contribution I could make?'” Obama said during a recent roundtable with young people in Singapore. “What I really felt most strongly about was, ‘How do we develop the next generation of leaders?'”
The Obama Foundation’s Africa programme is a year-long initiative that aims to train people for roles in government, civil society and the private sector. The 200 participants were chosen from an applicant pool of nearly 10,000, said Bernadette Meehan, a former diplomat who oversees the programme as chief international officer of the foundation.
Obama plans to recruit veterans of his administration and big-name friends to speak to the young people in Johannesburg. He will hold a town-hall-style meeting with them at the end, something he made a practice of doing during his trips as president.