Speaking in New Jersey and Virginia on behalf of Democratic candidates for governor in next month’s off-year elections, Obama never mentioned Trump’s name in his first political activities since leaving office.
But his indictment of his replacement — and his defense of his own eight years in office — was by turns angry and somber, and clearly targeted at the White House.
In Richmond, Va., the former seat of the Confederacy, Obama recalled the violent protest between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville earlier this year as demonstrating, ultimately, that American values stood firm.
He did not utter a word about Trump’s assertion that fine people populated both sides, but the contrast hung in the air.
The question of the fate of Civil War monuments helped spark the Charlottesville protest and has become a campaign issue in Virginia. The Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has moved further to the left than many of the state’s voters in seeking to have the monuments taken down and placed in museums. Trump has criticized that idea, saying that removing the monuments would erase part of American history.
Obama, the nation’s first non-white president, said as he defended Northam that in dealing with history, “we should do it in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds, not in a way that divides.”
After Charlottesville, he said, Americans “rejected fear, rejected hate, and so we rise. We don’t rise up by repeating the past. We rise up by learning from the past.”
In a passage that lightened the mood, he noted that while his father was from Kenya — “as some of you know” — his mother was distantly related to the president of the Confederate states, Jefferson Davis.
“Think about that,” Obama said, laughing. “I bet he’s spinning in his grave.”
“The point is that’s America, and we claim all our history, the good and the bad,” he continued, more soberly. “We can recognize that even if our past is not perfect, we can honor the ideals that have allowed us to come this far.”
“That’s who we are. Why are we deliberately trying to misunderstand each other and be cruel to each other and put each other down? That’s not who we are.”
Obama’s remarks came on the same day that his predecessor, George W. Bush, offered a similarly forceful denunciation of Trump’s brand of politics. Like Obama, Bush did not mention Trump’s name. But the speeches nonetheless were a remarkable two-punch repudiation of the sitting president.
While Obama seemed to have Trump in mind much of the time Thursday, he also heatedly criticized the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Ed Gillespie. Gillespie’s main campaign ad recently included pictures of heavily tattooed Latinos and mentions of the dangerous MS-13 gang to impugn Northam as insufficiently tough on immigration and crime.
“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear,” Obama said of Gillespie. “What he really believes is if you scare enough folks, you might get enough votes to win election. It’s as cynical as it gets.”
As with that blast at Gillespie, much of Obama’s remarks in both cities hit on the need for civility in debate and unity among Americans. It was an evocation of what Obama wanted his presidency to be, even though opposition to him ushered in some of the contentiousness that persists to this day.
“Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we’ve got politics infecting our communities,” he said in Richmond. ”Instead of looking for ways to work together … we’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize.”
“… And so the question now, at a time when our politics seem so divisive and so angry and so nasty, is whether we can recapture that spirit where we support or embrace somebody who wants to bring people together.”
His answer: “Yes, we can.”
That echo of one of his most famous campaign lines was intentional, as were his repeated mentions of the Affordable Care Act, now under persistent fire from Trump, who favors its repeal. That effort has been confounded by splits among Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Trump’s inability to generate the kinds of early victories that marked Obama’s first years may have been one of the factors Obama was alluding to in a biting remark that drew laughter from more than 6,000 supporters in the Richmond Convention Center.
“You’ll notice I haven’t been commenting much on politics lately,” he said. “Here’s what I know: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you won’t be able to govern.”
In both speeches Thursday, Obama asserted that Democratic victories would send a signal both here and internationally that the United States was intent on correcting course after the Republican victory last November.
“Not only will you move New Jersey forward, but you can send a message to the country and send a message to the world that we are rejecting the politics of division, we are rejecting the politics of fear, and we are embracing a politics that says everybody counts, a politics that says everybody deserves a chance,” he said in Newark.
The former president’s first venture onto the campaign trail came on behalf of two early supporters of his presidential efforts. In New Jersey, Phil Murphy, Obama’s first ambassador to Germany, has easily led in polls leading up to election day. In Virginia, Northam has held onto a narrow but not comfortable lead over Gillespie.
In both cases, the candidates are hoping Obama will energize his loyalists, particularly young and minority voters, to show up in midterm elections that they often spurn.
In Newark, Obama implored them to turn out with an arch reference to the 2016 election.
“You can’t take this election or any election for granted. I don’t know if you all noticed that,” he said dryly.
Whatever the eventual results, it was clear Thursday night that for a big segment of Democrats, Obama remains the biggest draw there is.
In Richmond, the crowd was rapturous, obliterating his remarks at many points as his words dissolved under the sound of the crowd. As he entered the rally in Newark, the crowd opened with a chant: “Four more years! Four more years!”
He replied with a laugh.
“I will refer you both to the Constitution as well as to Michelle Obama to explain why that will not happen,” he said.