Barack Obama’s post-presidential retreat into the private world seems to be over.
The 44th President has only dabbled in the political arena since leaving office, issuing certain statements when his signature policies on health care and immigration were under attack and attending a handful of fundraisers. Most recently he announced a first round of political endorsements.
But on Friday, before accepting an award at the University of Illinois, he dove in headfirst. He not only denounced President Donald Trump for the first time by name since leaving office over a year and a half ago, but also used the speech to reflect on both the policies his successor has implemented and the partisan tensions that have gripped Washington D.C. and the country, urging the audience of 1,100 that a vote in the midterm elections was crucial to saving American democracy.
“As a fellow citizen, not as a president, but as a fellow citizen, I am here to deliver a message,” said Obama. “You need to vote because our democracy depends on it.”
“Some of you may think I am exaggerating when I say these November elections are more important than any in our lifetime,” he said. “I have been guilty at saying this when I was on the ballot … but a glance at recent headlines should tell you this moment really is different.”
The speech was a preview of the argument he will make on the campaign trail, which he is about to embark on in the hopes of helping Democrats prevail in November elections for Congress. He will spend this Saturday in California stumping for seven congressional candidates at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee event and will head to Ohio next week to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray. His office is expected to announce additional travel in the next few weeks.
The hourlong speech, however, wasn’t just about Trump – although there was no shortage of shots taken at him – but the forces that led to his presidency and the current state of the country. “He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said of Trump as a round of applause broke out. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
The subsequent portions of his remarks laid out why, in his words, this moment was so different. He railed against everything from his successor’s failure to condemn white nationalists after Charlottesville – “How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?” – his denunciation of the media – “I complained plenty about Fox News. you never heard me threaten to shut them down” to his desire to build a border wall with Mexico.
Obama’s criticism extended beyond Trump, to the party he now leads, the Republican-led Congress and members of his Administration. He attempted to connect Trump’s views with the members of the Republican Party as a whole, particularly on Russia, and noted how far the GOP had seemed to stray from its roots. “[the GOP] central organizing principle was the fight against communism and now they are cozying up to the KGB,” he said. “What happened?”
Referencing the opinion piece published in the New York Times anonymously by someone only described as a “senior administration official” who criticized Trump and his inability to understand policy, Obama pointedly decried anyone who deemed those sentiments a solution.
“The 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,” he said. “They’re not doing us a service by actively promoting 90% of the crazy stuff that’s coming out of this White House and then saying ‘Don’t worry we’re preventing the other 10%.'”
In a notable moment that seemed made for a split screen television, almost at the same time Obama was issuing these remarks, Trump was telling reporters on Air Force One he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the anonymous author of the op-ed.
Obama acknowledged positive things had emerged from what he deemed the current “political darkness,” like the activism of the students from Parkland High School, the surge of female candidates and the Me Too movement. But he was emphatic in the fact that none of that outweighed the power of the voting booth. The alternative of sitting on the sidelines given all of these factors, he explained, was simply not an option.
“The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference,” he said. Lamenting the low voter turnout of the 2014 midterm elections — where his party lost its majority in the Senate — he told the audience a repeat of that would not work this time. “You have the power to make sure we seize a brighter future. but to execute that power you have to show up.”