Obama rips GOP, rouses voters

In speech at UIUC, former president dismisses Trump as 'a symptom, not the cause'

President Obama ripped Republicans, dismissed President Trump, and called young voters to action in a speech Friday at the University of Illinois. (Obama White House Archives)

President Obama ripped Republicans, dismissed President Trump, and called young voters to action in a speech Friday at the University of Illinois. (Obama White House Archives)

By Ted Cox

Directing his remarks specifically to young adults, Barack Obama called on U.S. citizens to vote and dismissed President Trump as "a symptom, not the cause" of the current political divide in a speech Friday morning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Surveying the current political scene, Obama described it as "one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for.

"This is not normal," he added. "These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times."

As he rarely has since leaving office, Obama criticized Republicans in general and Trump in particular by attacking reactionary politics. Citing the great progress the nation had shown from its origins through the Civil War, two World Wars, and extending through the civil-rights movement, he then added, "Of course, there’s always been another darker aspect to America’s story. Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line. There’s a reason why progress hasn’t been easy and why throughout our history every two steps forward seems to sometimes produce one step back. Each time we painstakingly pull ourselves closer to our founding ideals, that all of us are created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, the ideals that say every child should have opportunity and every man and woman in this country who’s willing to work hard should be able to find a job and support a family and pursue their small peace of the American dream, ideals that say we have a collective responsibility to care for the sick, and we have a responsibility to conserve the amazing bounty, the natural resources of this country and of this planet for future generations — each time we’ve gotten closer to those ideals, somebody somewhere has pushed back.

"It did not start with Donald Trump," he added. "He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalizing on resentments 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 have taken place in your brief lifetimes."

Calling it "a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment," he attacked a series of Republican policies as anti-democratic, saying, "Over the past few decades, the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party. 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 young people and 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."

Obama accused Republicans of appealing to "racial nationalism that's barely veiled, if veiled at all. Sound familiar?

"None of this is conservative," Obama said. "I don’t mean to pretend I’m channelling Abraham Lincoln now, but that’s not what he had in mind, I think, when he helped form the Republican Party. 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. It’s a vision that says the few who can afford high-price lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda, and over the past two years, this vision is now nearing its logical conclusion."

He also made specific reference to this week's New York Times op-ed piece supposedly written by a senior Trump staffer who says there are movements afoot to rein in his excesses. "By the way," Obama said, "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 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. These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times."

Implicit in his criticism was a call to action. "History shows the power of fear, and the closer that we get to Election Day, the more those invested in the politics of fear and division will work, will do anything to hang on to their recent gains," Obama said. "Fortunately, I am hopeful because out of this political darkness, I am seeing a great awakening of citizenship all across the country. I cannot tell you how encouraged I’ve been by watching so many people get involved for the first time or the first time in a long time. They’re marching and they’re organizing and they’re registering people to vote and they’re running for office themselves.

"So if you don’t like what’s going on right now, and you shouldn’t, do not complain, don’t hashtag, don’t get anxious, don’t retreat, don’t binge on whatever it is you’re bingeing on, don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment, don’t put your head in the sand, don’t boo. Vote. Vote," Obama said. "Not just for senators and representatives but for mayors and sheriffs and state legislators."

He was especially pointed in calling out the full house of young adults who largely populated the Auditorium in Urbana at the University of Illinois and urging them to action.

"Cynicism led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day" in 2016, he said. "To all the young people who are here today, there are now more eligible voters in your generation than in any other, which means your generation now has more power than anybody to change things. If you want it, you can make sure America gets out of its current funk. If you actually care about it, you have the power to make sure what we see is a brighter future. But to exercise that clout, to exercise that power, you have to show up. In the last midterm elections in 2014, fewer than one in five young people voted. 

"One in five," he added. "Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part. ... And if you thought elections don’t matter, I hope these last two years have corrected that impression."

He concluded by encouraging students that "we have been through much darker times than these. And somehow each generation of Americans carried us through to the other side — not by sitting around and waiting for something to happen, not by leaving it to others to do something, but by leading that movement for change themselves."

Obama was at UIUC to accept the Paul Douglas Award for Ethics in Government. Douglas, of course, was a three-term U.S. senator with a strong reputation for ethics and a commitment to civil rights.

UIUC National Public Radio affiliate WILL-FM posted audio of the speech online.