By John McCormick
University of Illinois, USA - Former President Barack Obama charged back into electoral politics Friday with an unusually blunt critique of President Donald Trump’s style of governing and warned of dire consequences if U.S. voters stand on the sidelines in November’s midterm election.
Saying the nation is living in an "extraordinary" and "dangerous" time, Obama delivered a sharp rebuke of his successor and decried what he said was the failure of Republicans to serve as a check.
“This is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who we are, what it is that we stand for," he told a mostly student audience of about 1,300 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “If you thought elections don’t matter, I hope these last two years have corrected that impression.”
Obama’s speech at the university, where he also accepted an ethics in government award, marked the opening of a cross-country campaign foray by the former president to promote Democratic candidates for Congress and state legislatures.
It’s being undertaken at the same time Trump has an ambitious schedule of appearances on behalf of Republican candidates as the GOP girds for the possibility of losing its House majority in the Nov. 6 election. It will create a rare display for voters of a past president working directly against a successor.
As Obama spoke, Trump was in North Dakota, where he was headlining a fundraiser for a Republican Senate candidate trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent.
“I watched it but I fell asleep,” Trump told his audience.
Obama said voters must resist the “politics of fear and resentment” used by the privileged and powerful to preserve their status. Otherwise, he said, the U.S. risks slipping further from the ideals of the nation’s founders.
Obama said the current situation should raise alarms for members of both parties, such as Trump’s criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the FBI.
“It should not be partisan 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,” he said, “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.”
Obama raised alarm about a New York Times op-ed, written by an anonymous Trump administration official, that said top officials are working to thwart presidential actions they consider misguided.
“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, this is not a check,” he said. “I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.”
Obama also cited the president’s response after a clash last year between white supremacists and counter protesters in Virginia that turned deadly.
“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up, clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers,” he said. “How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad.”
Previous presidents have shied away from criticizing their successors.
"Most of these former presidents were too old to be part of it, or like George W. Bush, weren’t interested in re-engaging," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "This has not been a major function of past presidents, but these are not ordinary times."
Bush, Obama’s predecessor, largely avoided the campaign trail during the first midterm following his presidency and rarely had public comments about the man who followed him into the Oval Office. But he left office deeply unpopular, with an approval rating of 34 percent, mostly because the public had turned against the Iraq war.
Bill Clinton, who preceded Bush, did some 2002 campaigning during the first midterm after his presidency. Clinton left office with a 66 percent approval rating, according to Gallup data. Obama’s final Gallup approval rating was 59 percent.
Risk for Democrats
Obama’s involvement in the midterm campaign carries risks for Democrats. He doesn’t have a strong record of helping his party win when his own name isn’t on the ballot and Democrats suffered significant losses during both Obama midterms in 2010 and 2014.
The former president is following up his address by campaigning Saturday with Democratic candidates running to flip Republican House seats in Southern California’s Orange County, a traditionally conservative-leaning area where Republicans are at risk of losing several House seats. That event will promote seven Democrats running for Congress in districts Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election.
Those districts are central to Democratic prospects of trying to secure a net gain of 23 seats needed to take control of the U.S. House. Obama is likely to be less helpful in some of the most competitive Senate races playing out in states Trump won.
On Thursday, the former president is scheduled to campaign in Cleveland for Richard Cordray’s campaign for Ohio Governor. Cordray is a former Obama appointee who was director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The race between Cordray and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is rated as a tossup by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It’s playing out in a state Trump won by eight percentage points and where Republicans hold all statewide offices.
Obama is also expected to campaign in Illinois and Pennsylvania later this month and headline a fundraiser for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in New York City, which is looking to reverse gerrymandering that has helped Republicans in some congressional districts.