For most of the past two years, Barack Obama’s stance toward his successor has been elusive and allusive. Elusive because he has largely avoided the public eye; allusive because when he has spoken about current affairs, he has tended to avoid naming Donald Trump.
But the former president broke his silence Friday with a fierce rebuke of Trump and an exhortation to vote, delivered during a speech at the University of Illinois. In what’s expected to be the first appearance of many as Obama hits the campaign trail for Democratic candidates ahead of November’s midterms, he labeled Trump a demagogue and told the audience that this fall’s elections are the most important of their lifetime.
“This is not normal,” Obama said, reviving a common #resistance slogan of early 2017. “These are extraordinary times, and they are dangerous times.”
Obama’s timing is impeccable: His recent scheduled appearances have coincided with major Trump crises (though in this presidency, there’s almost always a crisis). His last big speech, delivered in South Africa, came immediately after Trump’s debacle with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. This one came at the end of a week that included leaks from Bob Woodward’s book and then an extraordinary, disturbing New York Times column by an anonymous senior administration official who said there are dozens of staffers working to thwart the president.* (Old-timers might recall when it was a minor scandal that former Cabinet secretaries respectfully criticized Obama in their memoirs. That was four years and a political eon ago.)
“The claim that everything will turn out okay because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders—that is not a check,” Obama said. “I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. These people aren’t elected. They are not accountable.”
Obama’s alternative was straightforward: “As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president but as a fellow citizen, I am here to deliver a simple message, and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.” This is not merely an abstract proposition. He has endorsed 81 candidates nationwide so far—many of them in state-level races—with more announcements expected.
The former president laid out a detailed case. It was vintage Obama: earnest in its belief in the power of democratic action; carefully caveated and circumspect; and determined to steer a middle course. His example is important for the Democratic Party, because since Hillary Clinton’s loss, there’s no clear leader who sets a tone for the entire party. Some Democrats have recommended an all-out assault on Trump, focusing on his outrageous behavior and violations of norms, but others have worried about outrage fatigue and pushed for a greater focus on kitchen-table issues, from health care to taxes.
Obama, as is his wont, has landed somewhere in the middle. Although he criticized many specific policy choices of the Trump administration, he did not hesitate to present the current presidency as an existential threat to the basic assumptions of American life.
“Even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy … I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government,” Obama said, launching into a litany of Trump’s most notable threats to that order:
It should not be Democratic or Republican—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. I’m not making that up; that’s not hypothetical. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans. We are supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them. We are supposed to stand up to discrimination. And we sure as heck [are] supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?
This being Obama, he offered up a series of caveats, noting that American leadership around the globe had not always done right, as in the case of the Vietnam War. (That’s a reminder that Obama and Trump have both pursued American retrenchment from the globe, though in very different manners and degrees.) He acknowledged that the U.S. system often had not treated minorities well. But what mattered, he argued, were the principles, echoing a defense of flawed but well-intentioned institutions that he delivered in South Africa. The current crisis “did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said. “This is not just a matter of Democrats versus Republicans or liberals versus conservatives.”
But Obama, who has tended to embrace a Whiggish vision of history moving slowly but inexorably toward justice, seemed perhaps chastened by the Trump phenomenon. “Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line,” he said.
Yet lest the focus on Trump’s existential threat convince anyone that Obama was becoming the wild-eyed Alinskyite his foes always suspected, he quarreled with two emerging strains of thought in the Democratic Party.
“There are well-meaning folks, passionate about social justice, who think that things have gotten so bad and the lines so starkly drawn that we have to fight fire with fire. We have to do the same things to the Republicans as they do to us, adopt their tactics, say whatever works, make up stuff about the other side,” he said. He said he disagreed, not because he is “soft” or interested in “empty bipartisanship,” but because “in order to move this country forward, to actually solve problems and make people’s lives better, we need a well-functioning government.”
Obama also rejected the dichotomy between embracing identity politics and pursuing white voters.
“This whole notion that has sprung up recently about Democrats’ need to choose between trying to appeal to white working-class voters, or voters of color and women and LGBT Americans—that’s nonsense,” he said. “I got votes from every demographic. We won because we reached out to everybody and [by] competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote, and that’s what we’ve got to do in this election and every election after that.”
This focus on uplift and unity has, of course, been Obama’s north star since he burst on the national scene with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In a moment of national despair and fatigue, and unrelenting negativity from all corners, it’s refreshing to hear someone speaking about politics in positive, constructive terms. But any hope that Obama can heal the Democratic Party’s divides might be premature. It’s worth remembering that in both midterm elections during Obama’s presidency, his party was, to use his term, “shellacked.” His focus on state-level candidates is tardy at best, following a full-scale demolition of the Democratic Party in state and local races during his presidency.
The shopworn nature of Friday’s rhetoric might give Democrats pause, too. These tools worked very well for him, accomplishing the task of electing a young black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency twice. But when others have tried to borrow them, they have found the tools unwieldy in their own hands, and the Obama era gave way to Trump’s election in 2016. Every indication is that Democrats are on pace to do well in November, and likely to retake the House, but the deeper cleavages in politics and society will remain, and perhaps even deepen. If Obama’s high-minded impulses couldn’t prevent Trump from becoming president, how likely are they to unseat him and heal the damage?
* This article originally mischaracterized the anonymous author of the New York Times column as a White House official. We regret the error.