Former President Barack Obama used an appearance at the University of Illinois on Friday to vilify Donald Trump and the Republicans who control Congress, calling the GOP “radical” in using fear and division to hold power under the controversial president’s leadership.
Exhorting students to vote in the November midterm elections and presenting a Democratic message, the former home-state president repeatedly chastised the current state of GOP-led politics as not “normal,” including an anonymous White House administration official’s recent description of a group running government in spite of an impetuous Trump.
Obama’s strong partisan rhetoric and critique of the Trump administration is at odds with the long-standing tradition that even he mentioned which has former presidents largely remaining silent about their successors. It also signals a more active role for Obama on the campaign trail on behalf of Democrats trying to overturn GOP control of the House and Senate.
Obama called Trump “a symptom, not the cause” of “a fear and an anger that’s rooted in our past” involving racial and economic divisions that have been exploited by politicians for years.
“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,” Obama said.
But Obama contended the current state of politics conducted by Republicans in an era of increased technology and economic inequality has been “manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because that helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege.”
He criticized Republican efforts to curb or remove laws involving voting rights, campaign finance limits and the social safety net while backing tax cuts and embracing “wild conspiracy theories” including one once endorsed by Trump — that Obama was not born in the U.S.
“It’s not conservative. It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical. It’s a vision that says the protection of our power and those who back us is all that matters, even when it hurts the country,” he said. “It’s a vision that says the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda and over the past two years, this vision is now nearing its logical conclusion.”
Noting Trump’s efforts to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin while U.S. intelligence has accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Obama asked, “What happened to the Republican Party?
“Its central organizing principal 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?” he said.
Obama also launched at Trump’s efforts to try to politicize activities in the U.S. Justice Department through criticism of the actions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Those criticisms include Trump’s tweeted complaints over prosecutions of two GOP congressmen up for election in November.
“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,” he said.
In addition, the former president said Americans concerned about Trump’s presidency should be troubled by assurances contained in a recent op-ed in the New York Times from a “senior administration official” who said there was a group in the White House keeping government functioning and often working against the president.
“By the way, that claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders? That is not a check,” Obama said.
“That’s not how our democracy is 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.”
Obama also touted his own administration’s record in the aftermath of the Great Recession and rebuked Republicans for now calling job growth and economic expansion a “miracle.”
Citing a history of lack of civic involvement and engagement by younger voters, Obama said the “antidote” to Trump’s government was “a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many.”
“You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by a particular candidate,” he said. “We don’t need a messiah. All we need is decent, honest, hard-working people who are accountable and have America’s best interest at heart.”
Trump, speaking at an event in North Dakota, reacted to Obama’s speech by saying, “I’m sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep.” Of Obama, the Republican president added, “I found he’s very good, very good for sleeping.”
Obama’s remarks came as he accepted the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government from the U. of I. system’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Past honorees include former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens, former Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
The majority of the crowd watching the speech were students from University of Illinois’s campuses in Springfield, Chicago and Urbana-Champaign.The president began his speech with the “Illini” call and response chant: “Just wanted to see if you all were awake,” he joked.
Throngs of students unable to snag a ticket surrounded Foellinger Auditorium after the speech, craning to get a peek at Obama in the pouring rain, held at bay by large black SUVs. As they staked positions on the lawn, two students standing on a bench yelled out:“Oh no! He’s coming out on the other side! We can’t see him!”
The former president’s comments represented the second time in a week that he has called for more civility in public and political life to counter current norms in Washington.
On Saturday, he spoke at a memorial service for another previous Douglas award winner, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, where he assailed public discourse that is “small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker was in attendance Friday along with former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who is a distinguished fellow at the award-granting institute. Others attending included U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, state Treasurer Mike Frerichs of Champaign, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza and several local legislators.