clock menu more-arrow no yes

Obama delivers a blistering critique of Trump in his first stump speech of the 2020 cycle

“Character matters.”

Barack Obama said President Trump was “incapable of taking the job seriously” at a rally for Democratic nominee Joe Biden on October 21 in Philadelphia.
Matt Slocum/AP

Speaking for the first time in person on the 2020 campaign trail in Philadelphia, former President Barack Obama did not hold back.

In a 36-minute speech delivered Wednesday to an audience seated in or standing by their cars, Obama slammed President Donald Trump as “incapable of taking the job seriously.” In between plugs for his former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, Obama repeatedly attacked Trump’s record, starting with his handling of Covid-19.

“At least 220,000 Americans have died. More than 100,000 small businesses have closed. Millions of jobs are gone. Our proud reputation around the world is in tatters,” Obama said. “Presidents up for reelection usually ask if the country is better off than it was four years ago. I’ll tell you one thing, four years ago you’d be tailgating here at the Lincoln instead of watching a speech from your cars.”

Obama also pointed to statistics indicating that despite the US having its first identified cases around the same day, South Korea’s “per capita death toll is just 1.3 percent of what ours is.”

Obama’s visit to Pennsylvania underscored the importance the Biden campaign is placing on the state, and in mobilizing Black voters in the Philadelphia area particularly. Obama’s approach: focus more on personality than policy.

While Obama’s remarks also lauded Biden’s health care plan and his foreign policy experience, the bulk of the speech focused on questions of character — both Biden’s and Trump’s. Throughout the speech, Obama returned to that familiar theme, including his oft-used maxim: “The presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

When he discussed his view of Trump’s fitness for office, Obama’s incredulity was palpable. As he recounted Trump retweeting conspiracy theories about whether SEAL Team Six actually killed Osama Bin Laden, he spoke to voters exhausted by the news cycle: “You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument” if Trump loses this November.

“And, look, this notion of truthfulness and democracy and citizenship, and being responsible, these aren’t Republican or Democratic principles, they’re American principles. They’re what most of us grew up learning from our parents and our grandparents. They’re not White or Black or Latino or Asian values, they’re American values, human values, and we need to reclaim them. We have to get those values back at the center of our public life.”

At one point, he leveled his ire at those who have made excuses for what he views as intolerable behavior from the president. Obama also lamented that Trump’s abnormal behavior “distracts all of us” from the policy ramifications of this administration. Ironically, in this speech, the former president seemed to be caught in that trap as well.

The Atlantic has reported that while “Obama is alarmed about Trump’s presidency,” like many he has struggled with how to campaign during a pandemic. Wednesday night’s speech — and an accompanying stop to meet with community organizers — seems to indicate he’s found his answer. It will be one event in a two-week blitz where “Obama will hit the trail, potentially adding joint appearances with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”