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White House Veteran David Simas Helps Forge Obama's Legacy As Foundation CEO


Every recent president has created a private foundation after leaving office. When President Obama was preparing to step down, he tapped David Simas to run the new Obama Foundation. Simas spent the last eight years as a senior adviser to Obama at the White House and on the campaign. Now that he's had a few months to figure out what this new job involves, we invited him into our studios. And I began by asking him what the focus of the Obama Foundation will be.

DAVID SIMAS: This job is about identifying, training and connecting the next generation of civic leaders throughout the country first and then around the world.

SHAPIRO: He's not talking about Democratic Party leaders. He's talking about community leaders. The foundation aims to be nonpartisan. Simas told me there are two key moments in Obama's speeches that lay out the vision for this foundation. The first came when Obama was a young senator speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.


BARACK OBAMA: We coach Little League in the blue states. And, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.

SHAPIRO: And the second was the president's farewell address this past January.


OBAMA: I'm asking you to believe not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.

SHAPIRO: There seems to be a striking level of civic engagement in America right now. But so much of that civic engagement is overtly partisan, whether it's resistance or town hall protests or marches. Are you fighting against the tide when you are trying to put out this message of civic engagement that is not overtly partisan?

SIMAS: In one way, yes, but I think in a broader sense, in a deeper sense, no. There has been an explosion of activism on the left and on the right. Activism is the necessary prerequisite, then, to organizing and to a deeper, broader engagement. And so our responsibility at the Obama Foundation regardless of ideology or party is in that moment of activism when people want to get engaged, is to make them stop first and engage in a certain level of discourse, which is don't begin a conversation with someone you disagree with by simply stating that they're wrong. Engagement begins and organizing begins with a deep sense of listening so that the person you disagree with you truly understand where they're coming from.

SHAPIRO: What makes you think this can actually work? I mean, the last eight years seem to show that progress comes through polarization. Progress did not come through some kind of grand bargain across the aisle.

SIMAS: Yeah, so this is where the beauty of local engagement - right? Once you can remove people from the binary tribe of blue team versus red team and have them focus on a local level and family members, people they go to church with and people they work with, it's our bet and belief that when you foster that sense of civic discourse from the bottom up that it eventually works its way up into a much broader state and national and eventually global perspective. That's the bet.

SHAPIRO: People often talk about community engagement as a means to an end whether the end is women's empowerment or whether the end is passing a piece of legislation or whether the end is religious freedom. What is the desired end goal of the community engagement that you're trying to encourage?

SIMAS: So the good work that people do is a good end in and of itself. When trust erodes between Americans, among Americans, when institutions that heretofore even at the local level have been the anchors of building community - when those begin to erode, all of a sudden there's a vacuum. So in the act of working with people to listen, to understand, to build community, to work on problems together, not only do you solve the problem, but then you begin to rebuild that sense of civic infrastructure.

SHAPIRO: Just so I'm clear, President Obama has talked about engaging in some overtly partisan activities - for example, fighting gerrymandering, trying to get congressional districts drawn differently. Is that having nothing to do with the Obama Foundation?

SIMAS: Nothing at all.

SHAPIRO: How will you measure success?

SIMAS: There are different indicators of civic health - voting participation, volunteering. And so we'll spend a good year, a good two years really creating that baseline of how to measure, test it in different places, see where we're being effective and where we're not being effective. My hope, Ari, is that not only in five years and in 10 years and in 20 years and in 30 years this organization that President Obama and Mrs. Obama are building will transform and grow into an institution that will be synonymous not just with his presidency, but with a certain type of citizenship that harkens back to the 2004 speech, which is about seeing each other first for what brings us together and not for what separates us.

SHAPIRO: David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation. Thanks for coming into the studio and talking with us.

SIMAS: Such a great pleasure. Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.