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'Facts. Rule of law. Democracy': Obama on governing

The former president made several comments that seemed to allude to the state of the country and the Trump administration.
Image: Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama speaks at the My Brother's Keeper Alliance Summit in Oakland, California on Feb. 19, 2019.Jeff Chiu / AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Former President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he tried to build a culture centered around problem-solving and not personal gain while in the White House — an effective strategy for any organization that also prevents "big scandals and indictments."

Obama's comments drew applause from a crowd of about 9,000 people at a business conference in Salt Lake City.

Obama didn't mention President Donald Trump and wasn't asked about him during a question-and-answer session, but he made several comments that seemed to allude to the state of the country and the Trump administration.

"Things like rule of law, democracy and you know, competence and facts; those things are not partisan, but they also don't happen automatically," Obama said. "There has to be citizens who insist on it and participate to make sure it happens. Democracy is a garden that has to be tended."

Obama said he felt confident he was making the best possible decisions during his presidency about difficult problems such as Osama bin Laden and the U.S. banking crisis because he surrounded himself with smart people who didn't always agree with him. He said he strived to get all perspectives about the topic at hand.

Calling himself "old-fashioned," Obama said he believed in "things like facts and reason and logic."

The remark triggered loud applause and laughter before Obama responded: "Thank you. We have a fact-based crowd here. That's good."

He lamented the "polarized time" we live in in which people get "fractured" information.

"People want their own facts that are suited to their opinions rather than shaping their opinions around facts," Obama said.

He answered questions from Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics International Inc., a Provo, Utah-based survey-software provider that hosted the conference, the Qualtrics Experience Management Summit. The company, which was bought last year by SAP for $8 billion, makes technology that helps companies get feedback from employees and customers.

The conference brings several big-name speakers, including Richard Branson, who went on stage before Obama and delighted the audience with stories about how started his airline company and came up with the name for his brands, Virgin.

He lit up about his "ridiculously exciting" Virgin Galactic's venture that is working toward commercial operations that will take passengers on supersonic thrill rides to the lower reaches of space to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth below. He said he hopes to go up in one of his ships in July.

At one point, Obama weighed in on about his worries about the internet and social media's influence on children.

"It's making them so absorbed with what is the world thinking about them in a way that we just weren't subject to when we were kids," said Obama, who has two daughters. "Some of this is figuring out, what's the filter you set up that allows critical information and effective feedback ... but just shutting yourself off from the narcissistic consumption of, 'What does he think about me? Am I liked?'"