Obama Hits The Campaign Trail

Former President Obama took on his successor in his first major political speeches since leaving office.

In one of his first major political speeches since leaving office, former President Obama has laid down the gauntlet against his successor in a way that other former Presidents have not done:

URBANA, Ill. — Former President Barack Obama re-entered the national political debate on Friday with a scathing indictment of President Trump, assailing his successor as a “threat to our democracy” and a demagogue practicing the “politics of fear and resentment.”

In a dramatic break from the normal deference former presidents usually show to incumbents, Mr. Obama ended a long period of public reticence with a lacerating assessment of Mr. Trump. Sometimes by name, sometimes by inference, he accused him of cozying up to Russia, emboldening white supremacists and polarizing the nation.

“None of this is conservative,” Mr. Obama told an auditorium of students at 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.”

Mr. Trump wasted no time in responding. Speaking to supporters at a fund-raiser in Fargo, N.D., he dismissed Mr. Obama’s speech. “I’m sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep,” he said. “I found he’s very good, very good for sleeping.” At a later stop in Sioux Falls, S.D., he said Mr. Obama’s re-emergence would motivate his base. “Now if that doesn’t get you out to vote for the midterms, nothing will,” he said.

Mr. Obama had always said he intended to follow the example set by former President George W. Bush, who after leaving office largely kept out of the public eye and refrained from criticizing his successor. But Mr. Obama has come under enormous pressure from Democrats frustrated that he has been absent from the stage as Mr. Trump dismantled his legacy and shattered norms that governed presidents of both parties.

Mr. Obama has weighed in from time to time, mainly through written statements criticizing the reversal of his policies, and he made a few campaign appearances during off-year elections in 2017 taking issue with the president. He also gave a eulogy last weekend for Senator John McCain that was widely seen as a rebuke of Mr. Trump. But until now, he generally avoided using Mr. Trump’s name or challenging him in such a direct way.

“It did not start with Donald Trump,” he told the college students on Friday. “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.”

The speech was meant to kick off a two-month campaign blitz to help Democrats take control of Congress in the November midterm elections. His first public event will take place this weekend in Orange County, a traditionally conservative-leaning part of California where Democrats are hoping to pick up several House seats. He is also expected to campaign next Thursday in Cleveland for Richard Cordray, a former bank regulator in his administration who is the Democratic nominee for Ohio governor.

Other former presidents have returned to the campaign trail after leaving office, especially Bill Clinton, while generally, though not always, avoiding direct criticism of their successors.


Mr. Obama acknowledged on Friday that he had stayed out of the debate for the most part, jokingly blaming it on family concerns. “The truth is, after eight years in the White House, I needed to spend some time one on one with Michelle if I wanted to stay married,” he said.

But he said he decided to speak out now because “the stakes really are higher” than before. “Because in the end, the threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or the Koch brothers and their lobbyists, or too much compromise from Democrats, or Russian hacking,” he said. “The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference.”

Mr. Obama said recent days demonstrated that the country had gone off course. He cited the essay by an anonymous administration official in The New York Times describing how a “quiet resistance” of “unsung heroes” on Mr. 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 O.K. because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders, this is not a check” on Mr. Trump, he said. “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.’ ”

Mr. Obama criticized the president’s policies on climate change, taxes, health care and regulations, but saved his most biting comments for how he said Mr. 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 F.B.I. 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. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.”

He also accused Mr. 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?”

The former President continued his campaign swing in California on Saturday, although he was somewhat less combative:

Former President Barack Obama, a day after delivering a stinging critique of President Donald Trump’s time in office, had a stark warning for fired-up Democrats in California: This is not rock bottom.

Obama urged the Democrats at his first rally of 2018 to get out and vote in November, telling them that the dismay they feel about Washington right now means nothing is they don’t follow through by voicing their displeasure at the ballot box.

“This is a consequential moment in our history. The fact is if we don’t step up things can get worse,” he said to audible groans from the 750 Democrats in the room on Saturday. “When there is a vacuum in our democracy … other voices fill the void. But the good news is in two months, we have a chance to restore some sanity in our politics. We have a chance to flip the House of Representatives.”

The speech was a departure from the lengthy and direct rebuke of Trump he delivered on Friday, where he mentioned the current President two times and lambasted him for leaning on law enforcement to protect Republicans from prosecution, slammed him for “cozying up” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and faulted him for equivocating about who was at fault during the white supremacist protests last year in Charlottesville, Virginia.

On Saturday, Obama didn’t mention Trump once and, instead, told Democrats that the problems in Washington are bigger than one person.

“The biggest threat to our democracy … is not one individual, it is not one big super PAC billionaires,” he said. “It is apathy, it is indifference, it is us not doing what we are supposed to do.”

It was clear in the audience, however, that most attendees believed Trump was the biggest threat. When Obama began to describe what he thought was the biggest issue, a man in the audience yelled, “Trump.”

The event, organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was an attempt to boost seven Democrats running in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 but which are represented by the Republicans in the House. The event officially ended Obama’s absence from the campaign trail, a months-long void that has angered some Democrats who believe he is not engaging in a political fight where he could be helpful.

Obama touted the seven candidates – 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) – by name, casting them as people who understand how critical it is for Democrats to step up in 2018.

“It is always tempting for politicians, for their own gain, and for people in power, to try to see if they can divide people, scapegoat folks, turn them on each other because when that happens, you get gridlock and government doesn’t work and people get cynical and they decide not to participate,” he said. “That unfortunately has been a spiral that we have been on for the last couple of years.”

His prescription, he said, was “when each of us as citizens say we are going to take it upon ourselves to do it differently.”

And while the speech was not as direct as his remarks in Illinois, Obama did cast the current administration as one that is seizing on division.

At least in public, Republicans such as President Trump are dismissing the reentry of the former President into the political fray. The President, for example, said that he tried to watch his predecessors speech but “fell asleep,” and at least in public, Republicans are saying that they believe that Obama re-entering politics will benefit them by helping to rally their political base. Behind the scenes, though, it appears to be a different story, with many Trump aides apparently worried that Obama’s presence on the campaign trail could provoke their boss to lash out just because he’s jealous of the media attention the former President is getting:

But Trump aides told Politico that they are worried Obama might get in the president’s head before the upcoming midterm elections, as Trump views Obama as much more of a threat than other democrats like Hillary Clinton.

The aides also mentioned Trump’s insecurity about Obama’s more positive media coverage and “adulation,” which only further fuels his belief that he is unfairly treated by the press. All three major cable news networks aired Obama’s speech in full, including Fox News. When the president spoke in North Dakota CNN didn’t air the remarks at all, while MSNBC and Fox News cut away from the speech before Trump was done.

Trump also mocked Obama’s speech later on Friday during another rally stop in South Dakota, telling his supporters: “If that doesn’t get you out to vote for the midterms, nothing will.”

As I noted, former President Obama has most certainly broken with recent precedent in his decision to not only head out on the campaign trail but also to directly attack his successor and his successor’s policies. The modern precedent since at least 1993 when George H.W. Bush was succeeded by Bill Clinton, former Presidents have largely refrained from either injecting themselves into the political debate or attacking the policies of the person who succeeded them. Indeed, this is largely an informal policy that goes back well before the first President Bush given the fact that, ordinarily, being a former President generally meant retiring, working on building your Presidential library, and, in more recent times, speaking before national and international organizations on general topics that don’t necessarily impede on the ground of the current Administration. There have been some occasions where this tradition has been broken, of course, but for the most part, it has been quite rare and it certainly has not happened this early in a new Administration.

Initially, President Obama said that he would follow the example of his predecessors and not directly criticize his successor, and that was basically true for the first year and a half of the Trump Administration even as the President and Republicans in Congress sought to undo some of the signature programs of the Obama Era. The former President was largely silent, for example, while Republicans were attempting to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the primary legislative accomplishment of his eight years in office. He was silent as the Republican Congress used its authority to dismantle many of the most significant regulations put in place by the Obama Administration. He was silent during the controversy over the President’s response to the attack in Charlottesville and the Muslim Travel Ban. In most of these cases, this silence came even as many Democratic pundits were literally begging the former President to step forward. For whatever reason, Obama chose to remain largely quiet during those events, but that’s obviously changed now.

The main reason for the former President’s change of heart, obviously, lies in the approaching midterm elections and the hope among Democrats that the party can retake control of one or both houses of Congress. Outside of President Obama, there are very few people on that side of the aisle capable of rousing the base of the party to get out to the polls in an important election. Additionally, it’s likely that the former President has been chomping at the bit to speak out for some time. Not only has President Trump spent the last year and a half eviscerating Obama’s legacy, he has done so while engaging in rhetoric that goes against pretty much everything that former President Obama stands for.

The risk of Obama speaking out, of course, is that it is likely to rouse Trump and his supporters just as much as it will rouse the base of the Democratic Party. Even taking this into account, though, it seems clear that Obama will be doing Democrats more good than harm in taking a more central role in the midterms over the next two months. Besides, it will be fun to see him and Trump battling it out on the campaign trail, even though we already know who the better orator is between the two.

FILED UNDER: 2018 Election, Climate Change, Congress, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Joe says:

    Not only has President Trump spent the last year and a half eviscerating Obama’s legacy, he has done so while engaging in rhetoric that goes against pretty much everything that America stands for.

    FTFY (and I don’t mean to equate what Obama stands for with what America stands for).

    Also, BTW, what about Bill Clinton being the Explainer in Chief for Obama’s second term.

  2. CSK says:

    Trump also claimed that he fell asleep during Obama’s Friday speech. Riiiiiight. He may not have been able to sit through the whole thing, but you can be damned sure it made him rave like a maniac.

  3. An Interested Party says:

    Besides, it will be fun to see him and Trump battling it out on the campaign trail, even though we already know who the better orator is between the two.

    Better orator, better writer, better father, better husband, better president, better human being, better everything…

  4. Tony W says:

    @CSK: Sure – he fell asleep, then spent the next few hours tweeting about every detail in the speech he could grasp.

  5. Kit says:

    Republicans never had anything but blind rage. Will Obama help them get their mojo back? I cannot help but feel that a unmotivated base of deplorables has more to gain here than their brethren on the Left.

  6. CSK says:

    @Tony W:

    I’m guessing he called Sean Hannity to explain it to him.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I hope that Obama won’t turn out to be better at motivating Republicans to vote than Democrats, but it’s good political theater and isn’t that what really maters?

  8. becca says:

    I really think some are underestimating just how much loathing and repulsion Trump inspires. Even I have found it surprising, tho reassuring that most of America still has a sense of decency.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    There’s an interesting phenomenon unfolding: for people under 35, “Republican”, “Conservative”, “Old White Male” conjures up images of Trump, while “Democrat”, “Progressive”, “Young Black Male” brings Obama to mind. The former is associated with nastiness, laziness, stupidity, while the latter is calm, measured and reasoned. And cool!

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan: True, but the little spits don’t vote. But maybe, just maybe, this tie will be different.

  11. Tyrell says:

    @An Interested Party: I am very uneasy about former presidents going around like this, making all kinds of political statements and criticizing the president in office. The tradition is not to do this and does not honor the office. I think that some sort of positive thinking, optimistic talks that help unite people would be okay, but not partisan politics. Think about it: Did Lyndon Johnson go around doing this to Nixon? I don’t recall Carter making these kind of speeches about Reagan. And Bush did not disrespect Obama by engaging in partisan politics. Other presidents did not do this: Grant, Eisenhower, Reagan.
    Carter actually offered his help to President Trump. Carter is an honorable person. Maybe Obama could do that, or other helpful things like help veterans, or offer to help negotiations with North Korea. He needs to make positive contributions for a change, not engage in opportunist political chatter. It is just not proper. We don’t need to be reminded of the failures of his administration. The news media should not show these type of political activities.
    Secretary Kerry is running around saying junk too. He should stick to learning how to make deals: “How To Buy a Car Without Losing Your Shirt” (Hamilton)

  12. Tony W says:


    ….does not honor the office.

    You lost me here.