The ex-president uttered the name “Donald Trump” for the first time in public since Trump’s inauguration in his speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Obama chastised a politics of fear and resentment, but argued that Trump himself was “a symptom, not the cause.”
“It did not start with Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past, but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.”
The speech reintroduced the president to American voters just before he begins campaigning earnestly for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms. Obama sought to portray the November elections as an opportunity to regain “some semblance of sanity to our politics.” He even spoke positively of emerging progressive policies, like Medicare-for-all, that he would not have endorsed in his more center-left administration.
But more than anything, Obama abandoned the posture he’s cultivated over the past 18 months as an elder statesman who largely stays out of the ruckus and refrains from directly criticizing Trump or Republicans in Congress. In doing so, he seemed to hope to convey a sense of urgency, arguing that the republic is at a crossroads and it will require a mobilized body politic to change direction.
“This is not normal. These are extraordinary times, and they’re dangerous times,” Obama said. “But here’s the good news. In two months we have the chance, not the certainty, but the chance to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”
Here are seven key moments from the speech:
“Demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems”
Obama criticized Trump and Republicans more directly than he ordinarily would, but he still placed the current politics of resentment — the coded racial language, the dehumanizing of the Other, and the fear-mongering in what is actually the safest time in recent history to live in America — in a grander historical context.
“America’s dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division,” Obama said, is a tale “as old as time.” And he heavily implied that Trump follows in those demagogic footsteps:
Even though your generation is the most diverse in history with a greater acceptance and celebration of our differences than ever before, those are the kinds of conditions that are ripe for exploitation by politicians who have no compunction and no shame about tapping into America’s dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division. Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do, that’s an old playbook.
It’s as old as time. And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in, and people of goodwill from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear mongers and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature. But when there’s a vacuum in our democracy, when we don’t vote, when we take our basic rights and freedoms for granted, when we turn away and stop paying attention and stop engaging and stop believing and look for the newest diversion, the electronic versions of bread and circuses, then other voices fill the void.
A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. No promise to fight for the little guy, even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful. No promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further. They appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all. Sound familiar?
“What happened to the Republican Party?”
Obama’s rise to the presidency began, in earnest, with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech professing his belief that there was not a Red America or a Blue America — that there is more that unites Americans than divides them. He has therefore been reluctant throughout his career to paint too broadly in his critiques of his political opponents.
But on Friday, he asked very bluntly: “What happened to the Republican Party?”
Republicans passed a tax bill that exploded the deficit by $1.5 trillion, Obama noted. Anti-communism used to be the rallying cry of the conservative, pro-capitalism movement in America and yet now they seem perfectly comfortable with Putin, a holdover Soviet spy, running Russia. Or they’re at least willing to ignore Trump’s comfort with him.
With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, without any checks or balances whatsoever, they’ve provided another $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to people like me who I promise don’t need it and don’t even pretend to pay for them. It’s supposed to be the party supposedly of fiscal conservatism. Suddenly deficits do not matter. Even though just two years ago when the deficit was lower, they said I couldn’t afford to help working families or seniors on Medicare because the deficit was in existential crisis. What changed? What changed?
They’re subsidizing corporate polluters with taxpayer dollars, allowing dishonest lenders to take advantage of veterans and consumers and students again. They’ve made it so that the only nation on Earth to pull out of the global climate agreement, it’s not North Korea, it’s not Syria, it’s not Russia or Saudi Arabia, it’s us. The only country. There are a lot of countries in the world. We’re the only ones. They’re undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia.
What happened to the Republican Party? Its central organizing principle in foreign policy was the fight against communism, and now they’re cozying up to the former head of the KGB.
Actively blocking legislation that would defend our elections from Russian attack. What happened? Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act has already cost more than 3 million Americans their health insurance, and if they’re still in power next fall, you better believe they’re coming at it again. They’ve said so.
In a healthy democracy, there’s some checks and balances on this kind of behavior, this kind of inconsistency, but right now there’s nothing. Republicans who know better in Congress, and they’re there, they’re quoted saying, yeah, we know this is kind of crazy, are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence.
“That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work”
Obama didn’t name the recent New York Times op-ed by an anonymous Trump official directly, but his allusion seemed clear as he warned against putting hope in unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats to protect the country from Trump’s worst impulses.
The claim that everything will turn out okay because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders, that is not a check. I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work. These people aren’t elected. They’re not accountable. They’re not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that’s coming out of this White House, and then saying, don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 percent. That’s not how things are supposed to work. This is not normal.
“Walls don’t keep out threats like terrorism or disease”
The proud policy wonk of a president couldn’t help but add a policy critique, praising emerging Democratic proposals like Medicare-for-all or giving workers seat on corporate boards — a rhetorical embrace of a much more leftist politics than Obama himself ever pursued in office.
I happen to be a Democrat. I believe our policies are better and we have a bigger, bolder vision of equality and justice and inclusive democracy. We know there are a lot of jobs young people aren’t getting a chance to occupy or aren’t getting paid enough or aren’t getting benefits like insurance. It’s harder for young people to save for a rainy day let alone retirement.
So Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage, they’re running on good new ideas like Medicare-for-all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate we know that people are tired of toxic corruption and that democracy depends on transparency and accountability, so Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns. But on good new ideas like barring lobbyists from getting paid by foreign governments.
We know that climate change isn’t just coming. It’s here. So Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like increasing gas mileage in our cars, which I did and which Republicans are trying to reverse, but on good new ideas like putting a price on carbon pollution. We know in a smaller, more connected world, we can’t just put technology back in a box. We can’t just put walls up all around America. Walls don’t keep out threats like terrorism or disease.
“What’s going to fix our democracy is you”
Obama’s speech was officially the kickoff to his campaigning for Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. He treated it, therefore, as a call to action. It was an unsubtle challenge to progressive Democrats who might have been unenthused about Hillary Clinton or suburban Republicans uncomfortable with Trump but who voted the party line.
Speaking as a Democrat, that’s when the Democratic Party has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people. When we led with conviction and principle and bold new ideas. The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many. That’s what this moment’s about. That has to be the answer.
You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert. This is not Coachella. We don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hard-working people who are accountable and who have America’s best interests at heart. And they’ll step up and they’ll join our government, and they will make things better if they have support. One election will not fix everything that needs to be fixed. But it will be a start. And you have to start it. What’s going to fix our democracy is you.
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
But Barack Obama is still Barack Obama. As he turned into the home stretch of his speech, the former president could not help but reaffirm his faith in a kind of post-partisan politics.
He called on people of all parties to be properly offended by the resurgence of white nationalism in mainstream politics or the appeasement of neo-Nazis by the president of the United States and people close to him.
“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers,” Obama said. “How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
I am here to tell you that even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you believe in more libertarian economic theories, even if you are an evangelical and our position on certain social issues is a bridge too far, even if you think my assessment of immigration is mistaken and the Democrats aren’t serious enough about immigration enforcement, I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.
It should not be Democratic or Republican. It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents. Or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.
It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them enemies of the people. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans.
We’re supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?
“I was intent on following a wise American tradition of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage”
Obama actually began his address by explaining, in his unique way, why it had taken nearly two years for him to make such a speech.
Truth was, I was also intent on following a wise American tradition of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage and making room for new voices and new ideas.
We have our first president, George Washington, to thank for setting that example. After he led the colonies to victory as general Washington, there were no constraints on him, really. He was practically a god to those who had followed him into battle. There was no constitution. There were no democratic norms that guided what he should or could do.
And he could have made himself all-powerful, could have made himself potentially president for life. Instead, he resigned as commander in chief and moved back to his country of state. Six years later, he was elected president. But after two terms, he resigned again and rode off into the sunset.
The point Washington made, the point that is essential to American democracy is that in a government of and by and for the people, there should be no permanent ruling class. There are only citizens, who through their elected and temporary representatives, determine our course and determine our character. I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who it is that we are.