URBANA — Calling out President Donald Trump by name for presiding over a “radical” White House that “sure isn’t normal” and Republicans in Congress for exploiting a “politics of resentment and paranoia,” former President Barack Obama returned to Illinois Friday to rally Democrats for the midterms — and deliver a stinging rebuke of his successor.
The nation’s first African-American president ripped Trump for his response to the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination,” Obama told an audience at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign.
“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?”
Signaling a more direct engagement in get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of the November elections, the former Democratic president took credit for the booming economy Trump loves to tout even as he warned that the nation is at a dangerous crossroads.
“You need to vote because our democracy depends on it,” Obama told the crowd.
The speech is Obama’s first major foray into politics as Democrats scramble to win back control of Congress in the midterms.
Trump later told reporters he tried to watch Obama’s speech, but he fell asleep: “I found he’s very good for sleeping.”
But Obama told his young audience they must wake up, that “the biggest threat to our democracy is indifference.”
The former state senator from the South Side of Chicago warned his Illinois audience that the country is at “one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States needs to determine just who it is that we are.
“As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president, but as a citizen, I’m here to deliver a simple message that is that you need to vote.”
He said the consequences of sitting on the sidelines are “dire.”
While those warnings seemed dark, Obama’s message was intended to inspire the young crowd to vote.
He implored his audience not lose themselves in “ironic detachment,” or “retreat”, arguing “if you thought elections don’t matter, I hope these last two years corrected the impression.”
“The best way to protest is to vote,” Obama said.
Obama discussed the recent op-ed published in the New York Times by an anonymous member of the Trump Administration who said other officials are trying to stop Trump’s worst impulses.
“That is not a check,” Obama said. “I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work,” Obama said. “This is not normal. These are extraordinary times. They’re dangerous times.”
He spoke of dark times in America, and warned the audience that they “happen to be coming of age during one of those moments.”
“It didn’t start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said. “He’s just capitalizing on resentment that politicians have been fanning for years. A fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that are taking place in your brief lifetimes.”
Obama criticized Republicans in Congress — saying the “politics of resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party,” while saying the issues GOP politicians are fighting for aren’t “conservative.”
Of job growth, Obama asked the crowd to look closely at Trump’s “economic miracle.”
“Let’s just remember when this recovery started,” Obama said to applause.
The former president said by the time he left office, household income was near an all-time high and wages were rising.
“I’m glad it’s continued but when you hear about this economic miracle that’s been going on … I have to kind of remind them, actually those job numbers are kind of the same as they were in 2015 and 2016.”
The Republican National Committee responded to Obama’s comments, saying, “just hours” after a jobs report showed growth, “Obama stepped back into the spotlight to make the case that our country is on the wrong track.”
Spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury said Obama is “still dismissing the millions of voters across the country who rejected a continuation of his policies in favor of President Trump’s plan for historic tax cuts, new jobs and economic growth.”
Trump responded to Obama’s criticizing while speaking to reporters while he flew from Montana to North Dakota Friday.
“I’m sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep,” Trump said.
He also took a jab at the violence in Obama’s adopted hometown, noting the high number of shootings and criticizing the city’s leaders.
“It’s easy to straighten out if you have the right policy,” Trump said, according to tweets from reporters on the plane.
During a campaign appearance in North Dakota, Trump also said that Obama was trying to take credit for this “incredible thing that’s happening to our country” and went on to talk about economic gains since he took office.
In his speech, Obama said what’s happening in American politics is not “conservative.”
“I don’t mean to pretend I’m channeling Abraham Lincoln now, but that’s not what he had in mind, I think, when he helped form the Republican Party,” Obama said. “It’s not conservative. It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical. It’s a vision that says the protection of our power and those who back us is all that matters even when it hurts the country.”
Still, he believes America will make it through this period: “We have been through much darker times than these and somehow each generation of Americans have carried us through to the other side.”
Obama’s traveled to California later Friday to campaign for Democrats. He’ll also travel to Ohio next Thursday for a rally for Ohio Democrats and others later this month.