Former President Barack Obama came out swinging Friday afternoon during his first major 2018 midterms address at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
The former president specifically named President Trump—something he hasn’t done during his post-presidential speeches—saying that the current discontent and anger doesn’t come solely from Trump’s presence in politics, but it is something the current president uses to his benefit.
“It did not start with Donald Trump, he is a symptom not the cause,” Obama said. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but also borne of the tremendous upheavals that have taken place.”
But there were some specific things he criticized Trump and the current Republican Party over, namely the president's equivocating over white nationalists who marched in a deadly Charlottesville, Virginia rally last year.
“We’re supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers,” Obama said. “How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?”
“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different, the stakes really are higher, the consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire,” he said, broadly referring to the political chaos of the Trump era.
It recalled previous iterations of the Obama stump speech, particularly a now-famous relic of the 2016 presidential campaign in which he told the crowd at the Democratic National Committee convention: “Don’t boo, vote.”
But this time, he tried to emphasize that the stakes are even higher and that the crop of Democratic candidates engaged in this political era were offering a necessary antidote.
On the policy front, he expressed dismay with the Republican tax-reform measure, billed as one of the banner achievements of the current GOP-led Congress, but one that has seen its approval fall among the general public.
"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," Obama said. "It's supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism!"
He also praised the general policy platforms a large share of Democrats have adopted in the aftermath of Clinton’s presidential loss, including Medicare for All.
"Democrats aren't just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage," Obama said. "They're running on good new ideas like Medicare for All, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt-free."
Whether intentionally or not, the former president also appeared to reference two recent bills introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a potential 2020 candidate herself, specifically praising stipulations within them that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns and bar lobbyists from getting paid by foreign governments.
He also spoke of the more recent headline-grabbing palace intrigue regarding an anonymous New York Times op-ed purportedly written by a senior official who claimed many people were working from the inside to prevent the president from following his worst instincts.
“That is not a check, I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work,” Obama declared. “These people aren’t elected. They aren’t accountable. They’re not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that’s coming out of this White House and then saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 percent.’ That’s not how things are supposed to work. This is not normal.”
Obama’s speech, billed as a preview of the themes he will discuss on the campaign trail this fall, precedes the beginning of a travel schedule that will bring him around the country for Democratic candidates.
It begins on Saturday in Orange County, California, a traditionally Republican area that favored Hillary Clinton in a number of congressional districts in 2016. Obama will hold an event on behalf of seven Democratic congressional candidates—including Josh Harder (CA-10), TJ Cox (CA-21), Katie Hill (CA-25), Gil Cisneros (CA-39), Katie Porter (CA-45), Harley Rouda (CA-48) and Mike Levin (CA-49)—who hope to beat Republican incumbents in Clinton-won districts.
Following that, the former president will head to Cleveland, Ohio next Thursday to boost Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, who served as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during Obama’s second term in office.
This new phase of Obama’s political activity marks a significant uptick from what he was doing during the early stages of President Trump’s tenure. Often relegated to speaking out in long Facebook statements on key issues like the rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he is now leaping into the fray in a crucial election cycle for Democrats.
Behind the scenes, he appears to have taken a more active role, maintaining political relationships and even meeting with potential 2020 presidential contenders. According to the recently departed Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) book, Obama even called him and thanked him after the senior statesman dramatically voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act. He would go on to eulogize McCain at a funeral service.
Prior to this speech and his travel plans, Obama endorsed more than 80 candidates nationwide and according to his office, he plans to release another round soon in addition to more travel.