Barack Obama has delivered a sharp rebuke of Donald Trump’s America, attacking his successor by name for the first time in impassioned remarks that denounced “the politics of fear and resentment”.
In his first major political speech since leaving the White House, Obama made a lengthy appeal to voters across the US to restore “a healthy democracy”, and denounced the tactics employed by Trump and Republicans in Washington as an unprecedented threat to the country’s future.
“Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security would 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 is an old playbook, it’s old as time,” Obama said.
“It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”
Obama added: “[Trump’s] just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.
“When there is a vacuum in our democracy, when we don’t vote, when we take our basic rights and freedoms for granted, the politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold.”
Speaking to students on Friday at the University of Illinois where he accepted an award for ethics in government, Obama foreshadowed the themes he is expected to take to the campaign trail in the coming weeks while stumping for Democrats before the November midterm elections.
Obama’s remarks signaled he would not pull any punches in taking on Trump, whom Obama has studiously avoided attacking by name after handing him the keys to the presidency in January 2017.
Until now, Obama had weighed in on just a handful of Trump’s draconian immigration policies and decisions to withdraw from landmark international agreements, such as the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal.
But on Friday, Obama offered his most pointed indictment of the political climate that has formed under Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. It was a remarkable foray back into the realm of politics, after more than a year and a half of largely sitting on the sidelines.
As Obama spoke, Trump had arrived in North Dakota to headline a fundraiser for a Republican Senate candidate.
“I watched it but I fell asleep,” Trump told the audience. “I’ve found he’s very good, very good for sleeping.”
The president also criticized his predecessor for “trying to take credit for this incredible thing that’s happening”. Obama had pointed out in his speech that the economic recovery, which Republicans have attributed to Trump, actually began under his watch.
Standing before a crowd of mostly students, Obama chronicled the chaos and dysfunction that has characterized the Trump administration – and what he framed as the Republican acquiescence that enabled the breakdown of norms.
Obama asked: “What happened to the Republican party?
“It’s not conservative, it sure isn’t normal – it’s radical. Over the past few decades, the politics of division, resentment and paranoia have unfortunately found a home in the Republican party.”
He cited the rise of the far right and its trafficking in conspiracy theories – including the origins of Obama’s birthplace and a war on “science and facts”; he waded into Trump’s attacks on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and efforts to undermine the FBI and justice department investigating his campaign; and he alluded to Trump’s drawing a moral equivalence between white supremacists and counter-protesters on the left in Charlottesville.
“We are Americans. We’re supposed to stand up to bullies – not follow them,” Obama said, amplifying his tone with a note of incredulity.
“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be, to say that Nazis are bad?”
Although ostensibly an assessment of the nation’s capitol under Republican control, aides described Obama’s message as much broader than the current moment. As a former president who twice sailed to victory with huge support from young voters, Obama’s pitch was aimed at a generation of Americans at risk of becoming disenfranchised from the political process.
He implored young voters to channel their frustrations into votes at the ballot box, grassroots organizing and electing public officials who reflect the country’s rich diversity. To counter Obama’s blistering critique of the status quo, he said, concerned citizens could not afford to “wait for a savior”.
“The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides, is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many,” he said. “That’s what this moment’s about.”
Obama will spend the coming week campaigning for a handful of Democratsin California and Ohio and is expected to focus his attention on competitive districts that could hold the key to his party regaining control of the House of Representatives.
The former president endorsed a slew of candidates last month, more than half of them women, and on Friday emphasized the importance of first-time candidates and an inflection point for the country that was “too important to sit out”.
“It is a movement of citizens who happen to be younger and more diverse and more female than ever before, and that’s really useful,” Obama said. “We need more women in charge.”
The stakes, he added, were simply too high for cynicism and indifference to take hold.
“These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times,” he said. “In two months we have the chance to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”
“There is only one check on abuses of power, and that’s you and your vote.”