Barack Obama quietly visited Columbus recently.
You probably heard about Barack Obama's recent Columbus visit—or, more likely, you probably heard about its aftershock. In early September, the former president was the main attraction at a leadership summit co-hosted by the Columbus Partnership and the Columbus chapter of YPO, the network of chief executives under the age of 45. The visit was hush-hush (no announcement, no media coverage), but it did make headlines after Obama finished his talk.
In a follow-up panel discussion, L Brands founder and Columbus Partnership chairman Les Wexner, long the wealthiest Republican donor in Ohio, announced he was abandoning the GOP, fed up with the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. “I just decided I'm no longer a Republican,” Wexner said. “I'm an independent. I won't support this nonsense in the Republican Party.”
That declaration—first reported by my Columbus Monthly colleague Suzanne Goldsmith—was big political news, getting picked up by everyone from USA Today to “Morning Joe.” Inaccuracies also crept into the storyline as it spread on social media (imagine that), with some commentators making it seem as if Wexner experienced a political conversion in Obama's presence, like a Republican Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Actually, as Suzanne's original reporting made clear, Wexner has been moving in this direction for some time, criticizing Trump after his Charlottesville comments in 2017—a topic we explored in the September issue of Columbus CEO—and supporting candidates who embrace civility in public life, also a pet cause of Obama since leaving office. The reality is Obama and Wexner were already on the same page.
During the leadership summit, Obama spent about 80 minutes onstage in conversation with Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. The media wasn't allowed to cover the event, but I did speak with Fischer afterwards about the broad outlines of their discussion, which covered key events in Obama's presidency, as well as more recent happenings, such as the eulogy he gave at the funeral of Sen. John McCain, his one-time political rival. “They put the work of the country ahead of their parties, and it manifested in this fierce opponent reaching out and asking the other opponent … to eulogize him at his funeral,” Fischer says. “That says the world about Sen. McCain. It also says the world about President Obama. It's an illustration of people putting their work and their relationships ahead of their political battles and parties.”
Through the Columbus Partnership, central Ohio also has exemplified that model of collaborative, civil leadership, and the civic organization's unique spirit was a big reason Obama came to Columbus. “Post presidency, he's accepted only a handful of these type of engagements,” Fischer says. “So we were really honored and excited. I think it will go down as a pivotal moment for us and everybody that was in the room.”
Obama's visit “elevated the seriousness of our work,” Fischer says, helping the CEOs who comprise the Columbus Partnership to recognize the impact their approach—the so-called Columbus Way, increasingly a leadership model for other communities—can have not only in central Ohio but all across the U.S. “As I travel the country and visit a lot of cities, I think Columbus stands out,” said veteran politico and CNN commentator David Gergen, who moderated the panel discussion following Obama's talk. “I think there's a lot to be proud of.”
Fischer was particularly struck by an analogy Obama used. The former president likened leadership to a relay race, with folks constantly handing off the baton to someone else. The Columbus Partnership also embraces that long view, as it has expanded its membership in recent years to bring in a new generation of leaders and conducted outreach with groups such as YPO. “Leaders are in it over the long haul, and being in it over the long haul means it ends up being a team sport, regardless of partisan politics,” Fischer says.