Former president Barack Obama on Friday delivered a searing and direct criticism of President Donald Trump, the first time he's done so since he left the White House in 2017.
It also seemed to be the first time Obama criticized Trump by name in his post-presidency. He blasted Trump for his failure to denounce Nazis in Charlottesville, for stoking baseless conspiracy theories, and for the “crazy stuff that's coming out of this White House.”
Obama also noted that it was his own policies that have ushered in the robust economy Trump currently claims as his greatest achievement.
Trump, in remarks to supporters on Friday, responded by saying Obama's speeches put him to sleep. "Isn't this more exciting than listening to President Obama?" he said.
Obama’s speech — at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was receiving an ethics award — was touted as his first foray into the 2018 election cycle. He also took aim at the Republican Party’s seemingly unwavering support of Trump despite deep misgivings.
Obama's remarks were aimed at encouraging young people to vote in the midterm elections. He said, “In the last midterm elections in 2014, fewer than one in five young people voted. One in five. Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn't reflect your values and your priorities?"
“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, referring to the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times that was published this week.
“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%.' That's not how things are supposed to work. That's not how things are supposed to work. This is not normal. These are extraordinary times. And they're dangerous times,” he said.
Obama acknowledged he had been largely missing from the political stage since Trump took power, in keeping with past presidents. "I was also intent on following a wise American tradition. Of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage, making room for new voices and new ideas," he said.
Here are some of the subjects Obama hit upon:
- We are Americans. We're supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them. 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? Saying that Nazis are bad.
- When you vote, you've got the power to make sure white nationalists don't feel emboldened to march with their hoods off or their hoods on in Charlottesville in the middle of the day.
On White House dysfunction and that New York Times op-ed
- 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. I'm being serious here. That's not how our democracy's supposed to work. These people aren't elected. They're not accountable. 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%.' That's not how things are supposed to work. This is not normal. These are extraordinary times.
On Hurricane Maria
- I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don't die in a hurricane and its aftermath.
On school shootings
- If you're tired of politicians who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting, you've got to do what the Parkland kids are doing. Some of them aren't even eligible to vote yet. They're out there working to change minds and registering people. And they're not giving up until we have a Congress that sees your lives as more important than a campaign check from the NRA. You've got to vote.
- We know in a smaller, more connected world, we can't just put technology back in a box. We can't just put walls up all around America. Walls don't keep out threats like terrorism or disease.
On the rule of law
- 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.
On freedom of the press
- 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.
On the roots of the Trump presidency
- Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it's manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because it helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege. And you happen to be coming of age during one of those moments. It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.
This Congress has championed the unwinding of campaign finance laws to give billionaires outside influence over our politics. Systematically attacked voting rights to make it harder for the young people, the minorities, and the poor to vote. Handed out tax cuts without regard to deficits. Slashed the safety net wherever it could. Cast dozens of votes to take away health insurance from ordinary Americans. Embraced wild conspiracy theories like those surrounding Benghazi or my birth certificate. Rejected science. Rejected facts on things like climate change. Embraced a rising absolutism from a willingness to default on America's debt by not paying our bills to a refusal to even meet, much less consider, a qualified nominee for the Supreme Court because he happened to be nominated by a Democratic president. None of this is conservative.
It's not conservative. It sure isn't normal. It's radical.
On tax cuts
- So with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, without any checks or balances whatsoever, they've provided another $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to people like me who, I promise, don't need it and don't even pretend to pay for them. It's supposed to be the party supposedly of fiscal conservatism. Suddenly deficits do not matter. Even though just two years ago when the deficit was lower, they said I couldn't afford to help working families or seniors on Medicare because the deficit was an existential crisis. What changed?
On jobs numbers
When I came into office in 2009, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. 800,000. Millions of people were losing their homes. Many were worried we were entering into a second Great Depression.
- And by the time I left office, household income was near its all-time high, and the uninsured rate hit an all-time low; poverty rates were falling. I mention this just so when you hear how great the economy is doing right now, let's just remember when this recovery started.