But the reality was much more.
It was a homecoming to a neighborhood Mr. Obama used to represent as a state legislator, in a city wracked by gun violence. And it was personal in a different way, as he dispensed fatherly advice to the schoolmates of Hadiya Pendleton, the honor student at Hyde Park Academy who was shot and killed last month not far from Obama’s house.
In his remarks, Obama linked the cycles of violence to the lack of strong role models and economic opportunity.
“This is not just a gun issue,” he said, speaking to students, teachers, and community members at Hyde Park Academy on Chicago’s South Side. “It's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building.”
The president called for improvements in public safety, school reform, tax breaks to promote hiring, and the replacement of run-down public housing. He also repeated his call from the State of the Union to boost the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour and establish universal access to public pre-kindergarten.
And he called on Congress to pass gun control legislation, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December. But on the issue of guns, he added that there’s only so much government can do.
“When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole,” Obama said.
“In too many neighborhoods today, whether here in Chicago or the farthest reaches of rural America, it can feel like, for a lot of young people, the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town, that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born.”
Obama also got personal, addressing some of the male students in the hall with whom he had just met privately before his speech.
“Stand up, y’all, so we can all see you guys,” Obama said, adding that he was proud of them for their participation in a youth anti-violence program at the school, because some had “issues.”
“That's part of the reason why you guys are in the program,” the president said to laughter. “But what I explained to them was, I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. So I had more of a safety net.”
First lady Michelle Obama had attended Ms. Pendleton’s memorial service last Saturday, and Pendleton’s parents sat next to her at the State of the Union address. But the president has been under pressure for some time to visit Chicago himself and speak out about the gun violence there, amid the steady stream of news reports about gun deaths in his hometown, including children caught in crossfire on their way to school.
Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is mayor of Chicago, and so Obama’s visit could have been perceived as awkward – highlighting Mayor Emanuel’s inability to get the violence under control.
But Emanuel used his introductory remarks Friday to tout some of his educational initiatives, including five new math and science high schools partnered with tech companies that give the students community college degrees. Recent news reports have suggested Emanuel might be considering a presidential bid in 2016, which he denies.
What the president didn’t say during his short visit was that Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and yet its murder rate is on the rise. Last year, more than 500 people were murdered in Chicago, most from gun violence and much of it gang-related.
But supporters of gun control said Obama’s remarks still had value.
“You have to give people reason for hope and a feeling that there are solutions, otherwise you get more hopelessness, anger, and violence,” says Lisa Newman, who grew up in Hyde Park and was a speechwriter at the Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton.