Obama takes on Trump in debut of 2018 campaign role

Former president delivers blistering criticism of the political tactics of his successor
Former president Barack Obama speaks at the University of Illinoise in Urbana, Ill., Sept. 7, 2018.
Former president Barack Obama speaks at the University of Illinoise in Urbana, Ill., Sept. 7, 2018.

URBANA, Ill. — Former President Barack Obama assailed President Donald Trump on Friday as a “threat to democracy” as he emerged from a period of political silence to kick off a campaign blitz intended to help Democrats take control of Congress in the November midterm elections.

In a speech meant to frame his message on the campaign trail over the next two months, Obama offered a stinging indictment of his successor, sometimes by name, sometimes by inference, accusing him and his Republican supporters of practicing a “politics of fear and resentment,” cozying up to Russia, emboldening white supremacists and politicizing law enforcement agencies.

“None of this is conservative,” Obama told an auditorium of students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “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. 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.”

Obama said the headlines of the last few days alone demonstrated that the country had gone off course under his successor’s leadership. He cited the essay by an anonymous administration official in The New York Times saying that a “quiet resistance” of “unsung heroes” on Trump’s team was secretly working to prevent him from making rash decisions that would harm the country.

“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” on Trump, he said. “I’m serious here. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. 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.”

Trump lost no time in responding to his predecessor. Speaking to supporters in Fargo, North Dakota, he joked about Obama’s speech, “I’m sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep.”

The president accused Obama of wrongly taking credit for the economic expansion that has occurred on his watch. “It wasn’t him,” the president said, claiming that the recovery under Obama was the weakest in the nation’s history.

Obama has largely stayed out of the fight against Trump, to the frustration of many Democrats who have been searching for a high-profile leader. He has from time to time issued mainly written statements criticizing Trump, usually for reversing a policy that Obama put in place, and he made a few campaign appearances during off-year elections in 2017. He also gave a eulogy last weekend for Sen. John McCain that was widely seen as a rebuke of Trump.

But advisers said the former president plans a more vigorous string of public appearances this fall in hopes of helping Democrats take back the House and perhaps the Senate. He planned to fly to California later Friday to stump for House candidates, followed by a stop in Ohio and others later in the month.

Obama criticized the president’s policies on a list of issues, including climate change, taxes and regulations, but saved his most biting comments for his assertion that Trump has warped the institutions of American life.

“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 as political 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. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.”

He also accused Trump of playing to bigots. “We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination,” he said. “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?”

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