Barack Obama has largely stayed out of the public eye since he turned the presidency over to Donald Trump in January 2017. That’s about to change. The 44th president is set to embark on a nationwide tour aimed at promoting Democratic candidates this November. Before appearing with any specific hopefuls, though, Obama on Friday spoke to the students of the University of Illinois — the largest college in the state where he began his political career. In the few appearances he’s made since leaving office, Obama has spoken in broad terms about the threats facing democracy and what citizens must do to preserve America’s ideals. This wasn’t the case Friday, as Obama took dead aim at the party that gave way to the President Who Must Not Be Named.
“Over the past few decades, the politics of division, and resentment, and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican party,” Obama said.
"Over the past few decades, the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party." President Obama pic.twitter.com/8GzS938z2c
— Scott Dworkin (@funder) September 7, 2018
Obama zeroed in on how Trump has harnessed these insidious qualities, continuing his practice of refusing to mention the president by name.
“Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us, that’s an old playbook,” he said. “It’s as old as time. And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work.”
He went on to expand on his disappointment with how the Republican party has cowed to the president. “What happened to the Republican Party?” he asked. “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.”
Barack Obama: "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." (via ABC) pic.twitter.com/jDxPr0cxdx
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) September 7, 2018
“How hard can it be, saying that Nazis are bad?” Obama challenged. “That’s not civility,” he said of those unwilling to criticize the actions of the president. “That’s abdicating your responsibilities.” Nor was Obama satisfied with the recent op-ed penned by an anonymous senior administration official. “The claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who aren’t following the president’s orders, that is not a check,” he said. “I’m being serious. That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work. These people aren’t elected. 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.’”
Meanwhile, President Trump told reporters Friday afternoon that he would like Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use the resources of the Justice Department to investigate which senior administration official wrote the op-ed. Earlier this week, Trump attacked Sessions on Twitter for allowing the Justice Department to bring charges against “popular” Republicans when it could endanger their chances of re-election this November. Obama noted that publicly condemning this kind of behavior should not be a partisan issue.
Barack Obama: "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." (via ABC) pic.twitter.com/cXHCCFBfJj
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) September 7, 2018
In the end, the speech was Obama’s most pointed critique yet of how Trump and his enablers have perverted the most basic functions of government. He criticized the handling of Hurricane Maria. (“One of those functions [of government] is making sure 3,000 Americans don’t die during a hurricane and in its aftermath.”) He criticized the lack of diversity in the upper rungs of the government. (“We need more women in charge.”) He criticized how those in charge have conned the American people into thinking they’re acting on their behalf. (“They’ll promise to fight for the little guy even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful.”)
As is usually the case, however, Obama’s overarching message on Friday was one of activism and engagement. Because the stakes are so high at this particular moment in America’s history, concerned citizens can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. “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, the politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold.”
As he did when he was first campaigning for the presidency over a decade ago, Obama preached the need for Americans to hold onto hope, as well as to the belief that the people have the power to bat back any threat to democracy, even one as large as Trump. It’s just a matter of exercising it. “The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference,” Obama said. “The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism.”