URBANA, Ill. — The night before the 2016 election, Barack Obama said Donald Trump was “uniquely unqualified” on the economy, “temperamentally unfit” on foreign policy, couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes and had “utter contempt for the values that make this nation great.”
Friday, the former president took the stage here in a University of Illinois auditorium and said it had been all that and worse.
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For all the unprecedented moments Trump’s presidency has brought, Obama’s speech, which kicked off his midterm campaigning, marked a new one: a former president going on the attack directly against his successor—and arguing directly that the man in the Oval Office isn’t just a political opponent, but a threat to the core of America itself.
“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 we are, what it is that we stand for,” Obama said. “As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president, I’m here to deliver a simple message, which is that you need to vote, because our democracy depends on it.”
Laying out a brief history of America — starting with George Washington’s decision to step out of public life after leaving the presidency — Obama framed the 2018 elections as more significant than ever before.
And for the first time since leaving office, he said Trump’s name. Obama unfurled a paragraph-by-paragraph condemnation of Trump, his presidency and what he has uncorked in American politics.
“It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said to applause. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
It’s not just about Trump, Obama said. It’s about Republicans “who know better in Congress … bending over backwards to shield” Trump. They’re hypocrites, he said, and they’re just as dangerous to America. At times mocking them and at times laying into them, Obama said they’ve abandoned all that they’re supposed to stand for as Republicans, and as citizens of this country.
“None of this is conservative. I don’t mean to pretend I’m channeling Lincoln now, but that’s not what he had in mind, I don’t think when he formed the Republican Party. It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical. It’s a vision that says our protection of our power is all that matters,” Obama said.
He added later, “Over the past two decades … the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party.”
Nor, Obama said, should anyone feel good about the idea, expressed in the anonymous New York Times op-ed earlier this week, that there are adults in the room managing Trump.
“That is not a check. That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work. These people aren’t elected,” he said. “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 saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 percent.’”
Speaking shortly afterward at a campaign rally in North Dakota, Trump poked fun at Obama’s address without responding to its substance.
“I watched it but I fell asleep,” Trump said. “I’ve found he’s very good for sleeping.”
There was nothing subtle about the speech. He slammed Trump’s policies on everything from the environment to veterans affairs to the negligent response to hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, calling them a mismanagement of government, but also morally wrong.
“Even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you agree with more libertarian economic views, even if you are an evangelical and the position on social issues is a bridge too far,” Obama said. “I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned 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 partisan to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the justice system as as a cudgel to punish our political opponents.”
Everyone in the country, he went on, should be able to agree that journalists aren’t the enemy of the people, that people shouldn’t be persecuted because of what they look like, that everyone should be able to stand up to Nazi sympathizers.
“We are Americans,” Obama said.
As Obama was speaking, Trump was flying to North Dakota on Air Force One, telling reporters that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate who the author of the Times op-ed is.
This is all “exploitation” Obama said, saying that with “electronic versions of bread and circuses … demagogues promise simple fixes to complicated problems. They’ll promise to fight for the little guy .. They’ll promise to clean up corruption even as they plunder away.
They’ll appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all.”
“Sound familiar?” he said.
Obama has carefully avoided exactly these kind of comments in public for the past year-and-a-half. He has felt bound by a sense of deference that former presidents typically show to their successors, but also reminding allies that Trump and Republicans have always benefited from having him as a foil.
To wit, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Steve Stivers said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington on Friday: “For three cycles, President Obama fired up Republicans like nobody, and I’m happy it he wants to do it again.”
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a friend of Obama who said he’s spoken with him about when and how to criticize Trump, said Obama “is trying to be very careful. Former presidents have a limited function, and I think he wants to invest his time and name wisely.”
But in private, Obama has been paying close attention to Trump’s actions in office. While cautious about whom he shared his opinions with, Obama has made clear he’s very worried.
Six weeks out from Election Day, Obama decided that the time had come to let loose to make sure that Democrats actually turn out to vote in ways that they traditionally haven’t in midterm elections. He knew there was probably only one moment for him to unleash on Trump with maximum impact, and he wanted the timing to be right.
The location was chosen deliberately. Beyond being back home in Illinois, the speech was in a part of the state, two-and-a-half hours south of Chicago, that was representative of where Democrats failed in 2016. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Obama reminded people repeatedly that in his 2004 Senate run he’d competed in parts of the state outside of cities, suburbs and traditional Democratic centers. Obama was making a very deliberate point when he noted, at the beginning of his speech, that he had pointed out to staff what corn and bean fields look like as their plane landed that morning.
While Obama said his argument went beyond policy, he pointed to a number of issues that he thinks voters need to stand up for this year: criminal justice reform for African-Americans, booting out politicians who “see your lives as more important than a campaign check from the NRA,” standing up for the #MeToo movement, and stopping white supremacists from feeling emboldened.
The country needs to rejoin the world by reversing Trump’s decision on the Paris climate accords, Obama said. He dismissed Republican claims that their tax bill revitalized the economy.
“When you hear about this economic miracle going on … suddenly Republicans are saying, ‘It’s a miracle!’ I have to remind them that those job numbers are the same as they were in 2015, 2016.”
But in a measure of the attention Obama’s speech immediately drew and the way he made the case against Trump, the Republican National Committee quickly emailed reporters who covered the speech. Its response: Obama created the resentment they led to Trump. “In 2016, voters rejected President Obama’s policies and his dismissiveness towards half the country. Doubling down on that strategy won’t work in 2018 either,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said in a statement.
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican who made clear in 2016 that he wouldn’t support Trump and stresses the importance of moderates, sat in the front row for the speech, echoing many of Obama’s thoughts.
“There is more shielding going on by Republicans than there should be,” Edgar said. “I’ve been disappointed in the Republican leadership that they have not chastised the president.”
Next up for Obama is a Saturday rally in Irvine, California for seven Democrats looking to take Republican-held House seats. On Thursday, he’ll be in Cleveland campaigning for Democrats running for governor, Senate and other offices. He’s expected to do more campaign events throughout the fall.
For all the Democrats who’ve been wondering when Obama would speak up more, the former president provided an answer.
“People ask me what are you going to do for the election. The question is, ‘What are you going to do?’” he said. “I believe in you. I believe you will help lead us in the right direction. And I will be there with you every step of the way.”