At his first campaign speech since leaving office, former President Barack Obama urged America to rise above its deep divisions. Though Obama did not mention President Donald Trump as he spoke at a Richmond campaign rally for Virginia’s Democratic candidate for governor, Ralph Northam, the speech was clearly about him. He often alluded to Trump’s controversial brand of politics and delivered a stark warning, saying, “Our democracy is at stake.”
“Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we’ve got politics infecting our communities,” Obama said. “Instead of looking for ways to work together to get things done in a practical way, we’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas, to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage.”
Obama has largely remained out of the spotlight since leaving office, focusing on building up his new foundation and occasionally weighing in on current events on his Twitter feed. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been focused on destroying Obama’s legacy, rolling back key regulations put in place by his administration, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, and damaging the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health care legislation.
The former president didn’t use his time in Richmond to comment on his dismantled legacy, focusing instead on the deepening racial and social divisions in America. Obama specifically commented on deadly, racially charged violence earlier this year in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“If we’re going to talk about our history then we should do it in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds, not in a way that divides,” Obama said. “We shouldn’t use the most painful parts of our history just to score political points.”
We saw what happened in Charlottesville but we also saw what happened after Charlottesville when the biggest gatherings of all rejected fear and rejected hate and the decency and goodwill of the American people came out. That’s how we rise. We don’t rise up by repeating the past. We rise up by learning from the past and listening to each other.
We can acknowledge that Thomas Jefferson, one of Virginia’s most famous sons, owned and sold slaves — that’s not disputable. And we can also acknowledge that he also wrote those words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And we can recognize that even if our past is not perfect we can honor the constitutional ideals that have allowed us to come this far and to keep moving toward a more perfect union. That’s what America is. That’s who we are.
Obama happened to be speaking the same day that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, gave a speech in New York City. Bush also delivered a similar, veiled repudiation of Trump’s ideology, without mentioning the current president by name. Bush joins many other retired or otherwise out-of-the-game Republicans in offering a critique of the current president.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Bush said. “We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade — forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.”
And, like Obama, Bush warned about the deepening partisan divide in America.
“Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts,” Bush said. “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”