"More than anything, this pandemic has fully finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing," Obama said in a commencement speech on Saturday. "A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge."
Obama gave two 2020 commencement speeches by video — the first speech specifically aimed at graduates of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and a second given at the Graduate Together high school commencement, hosted by NBA star LeBron James.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in high school and college graduations — as well as prom, senior parties, and other milestones — being canceled across the country, forcing many to graduate via video ceremony or without a ceremony at all.
The former president has barely spoken publicly during the pandemic. Without naming President Donald Trump, Obama spoke repeatedly about how leadership is failing the country during a crisis, calling on graduates to "do right."
"Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s what little kids do," Obama said. "Unfortunately a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way, which is why things are so screwed up."
Obama noted that young graduates will have to "grow up faster" than previous generations because of the COVID-19 crisis.
"This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our countries deep-seated problems," said Obama. "From massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic healthcare for people who need it."
In his speech to HBCUs, Obama noted how COVID-19 disproportionately affects black communities, who are bearing the brunt of a higher number of infections, deaths, and unemployment.
"A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country," Obama said.
The former president also spoke about the scary time students are facing, as they may be unable to go away to college in the fall or find a job.
"Even families that are relatively well off are dealing with massive uncertainty," said Obama. "Those who were struggling before — they’re hanging on by a thread."
But he said he hoped that it inspires young people to change the world and challenge the status quo.
"It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work," Obama said. "That it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick. And that our society and democracy only work when we think about not just about ourselves but about each other."
And the crisis makes it clear that current leaders don't know what they are doing, he added.
"All those adults you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing?" asked Obama. "Turns out, they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you."
Asked about Obama’s speech on Sunday, Trump said he hadn’t seen the remarks but called his predecessor an “incompetent president.”
During the hourlong Graduate Together ceremony, which was streamed online and aired on TV networks, performers included Dua Lipa, H.E.R., and the Jonas Brothers. Other stars also gave grads commencement advice.
"It is time to chase every dream, accept every challenge, and strive for greatness. Honor every promise and recommit to your community," LeBron James said.
Singer and rapper Bad Bunny told students to "work hard on everything that you set out to do, on all your goals, but remember that it doesn't matter what we achieve — the most important thing is respect for others."
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe said the COVID-19 crisis would be the life-changing moment for young people that binds and marks their generation. She urged them to vote in the November elections to decide who leads during a time of crisis.
"We don't currently have the benefit of hindsight — we can't yet look back at what we've gone through and crystalize what we've learned. These moments can feel powerless, purposeless, and overwhelming," Rapinoe said.
"The cliché would be for me to ask you all to come together," she continued. "But we aren't together. We are separated in ways we have never experienced and facing a world that will never be the same. So I'm not going to ask you to come together. I'm going to ask you to demand better."