In a rare breach of tradition for former presidents, Barack Obama launched a scathing attack Friday on President Trump, framing the November election as a historic chance for Americans to reject his successor’s dark vision of the nation and restore honesty, decency and lawfulness to the U.S. government.
“If you thought elections don’t matter, I hope these last two years have corrected that impression,” Obama told students at the University of Illinois.
Obama attacked Trump by name, describing the incumbent and his Republican allies as defenders of the powerful and the privileged, stoking public anger and divisiveness as a means to protect themselves.
“It did not start with Donald Trump,” Obama said. “He is a symptom. Not the cause.”
Public fears of economic disruption and disorder around the globe, Obama said, have created conditions “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.”
The extraordinary speech, just over an hour long, captured the Democratic Party’s broader effort to define the midterm election as a referendum on Trump’s convulsive presidency.
Since leaving office, Obama has followed the pattern of ex-presidents keeping relatively quiet about their successors. But Trump’s unpopularity has opened a path for Democrats to seize control of the House, and Obama plans to play a leading role in their campaign to capture seats now held by Republicans.
On Saturday in Anaheim, he is holding a rally for seven Democrats running in California’s most fiercely contested House races.
Obama’s return to the national stage is notable for a former president long accused by fellow Democrats of neglecting candidates for lower office during his White House tenure, allowing Republicans to make sweeping gains in Congress and statehouses across the land.
“If you are really concerned about how the criminal justice system treats African Americans, the best way to protest is to vote — not just for senators and representatives, but for mayors and sheriffs and state legislators,” Obama said.
Trump, who arrived at a fundraising luncheon in Fargo, N.D., roughly an hour after Obama concluded his remarks, sought to convey indifference to his predecessor’s speech.
“I watched it, but I fell asleep,” Trump said. “I’ve found he’s very good — very good for sleeping.”
In Illinois, where Obama was receiving the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government at the university’s Urbana campus, the former president compared Trump to demagogues who promise simple solutions to complex problems and vow to clean up corruption while plundering away.
“Sound familiar?” he asked.
Obama mocked Trump’s equivocation in responding to the deadly violence that erupted last year in Charlottesville, Va., when neo-Nazi white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters.
“How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?” Obama asked.
Obama also castigated Trump for trying to curb the constitutional protection of the press.
“I complained plenty about Fox News,” he said. “But you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them enemies of the people.”
Obama faulted Trump for “undermining our alliances” and “cozying up to the former head of the KGB,” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As for the Republicans who control both houses of Congress, Obama accused them of giving tax cuts to rich Americans who don’t need them, voting to take away healthcare from millions, making it harder for young people and minorities to vote, and rejecting the scientific facts of climate change.
“It’s not conservative,” he said. “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.”
Obama made a point to seek common ground with rural white Americans and others who have turned away from Democrats.
“I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change,” he said. “I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers.”
Trump, by contrast, has stuck to a more polarizing strategy of trying to maximize turnout of his core supporters in November at the risk of alienating others.
At his rally Thursday night in Montana and again Friday in North Dakota, Trump continued to drive home wedge issues such as immigration, contending that Democrats support “open borders” and high crime.
“Today’s Democrat Party is held hostage by haters, absolute haters, left-wing haters, angry mobs, deep-state radicals, and their fake-news allies,” Trump told the crowd in Billings, Mont.
Obama’s reemergence as the face of his party carries risk for Democrats. Though he inspires millions of supporters, he also draws often intense hostility from conservatives, said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster.
“Turnout is driven by bringing enthusiasm and intensity to the base, and that’s what Obama has the ability to do,” Hart said. “He brings the passion and the voice that Democrats need to hear because he speaks in national terms, not just partisan terms. But he is still perceived as a partisan. Republicans don’t like him.”
Indeed, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he has no doubt that Obama will galvanize conservatives.
“For three cycles, President Obama fired up Republicans like nobody,” Stivers said, referring to the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections. “I'm happy if he wants to do it again.”
In making his case against Trump, Obama assailed the president for what he described as political interference in corruption prosecutions by the Justice Department.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Trump was annoyed when federal prosecutors last month announced indictments of the first two House members who backed him for president: Republican Reps. Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of San Diego County.
Collins was charged with insider trading, and Hunter and his wife were accused of using more than $250,000 in campaign donations to pay for personal expenses.
In North Dakota, Trump made a point of rebutting Obama’s reminder that the economic recovery began during his administration.
After touting his own economic record and complaining about his portrayal in journalist Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, Trump returned to the subject of Obama, asking the crowd: “Isn’t this more fun than listening to President Obama?”