'He is a symptom, not the cause': Obama takes direct aim at Trump for the first time since leaving office

  • Former President Barack Obama on Friday made a rare direct mention of President Donald Trump.
  • Obama delivered a speech at the University of Illinois urging young people to participate in the 2018 midterm elections.
  • The former president said Trump was “a symptom, not the cause,” of the divisiveness plaguing US politics.
  • Obama emphasised to the students that the “stakes really are higher” regarding this year’s midterms.

Former President Barack Obama on Friday took direct aim at President Donald Trump for the first time since leaving office, in a speech at the University of Illinois in which he urged young people to participate in the 2018 midterm elections.

Obama told students they were coming of age in a divisive period in US history in which the powerful seek to divide to maintain the status quo.

The former president said Trump was “a symptom, not the cause,” of the divisiveness.

“It did not start with Donald Trump,” Obama said. “He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalising on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”

Since Obama left the White House, he has avoided using Trump’s name in public statements and speeches, often employing the tactic of rebuking the president and his views without mentioning him.

That changed Friday.

‘You need to vote because our democracy depends on it’

Obama also told the students that the story of America had been one of progress, though not always in a straight line.

“There’s a reason why progress hasn’t been easy – every two steps forward seems to produce a step back,” he said. “Every time we pull ourselves closer to our founding ideals – that all of us are created equal … somebody somewhere is pushed back. The status quo pushes back.”

Obama emphasised to the students that the “stakes really are higher” regarding the November midterms.

“You need to vote because our democracy depends on it, he said, adding: “This moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”

He later added, “If you thought elections don’t have consequences, I hope these last two years have corrected that impression.”

‘We’re supposed to stand up to bullies’

Obama went on to bash the state of the Republican Party and its embrace of Trump, whom he characterised as a bully.

“We are Americans – we’re supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them,” Obama said. “We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination.”

He then ripped into Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of last year, when neo-Nazis staged a rally. When violence erupted, leading to the death of a counterprotester, Trump controversially blamed “both sides.”

“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers,” Obama said. “How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?”

‘What’s going to fix our democracy is you’

The former president wrapped up his speech by telling the students that they were the solution to the myriad problems facing the US, outlining why it’s so important they vote this year.

“One election will not fix everything that needs to be fixed,” Obama said. “But it will be a start. And you will have to start it. What’s going to fix our democracy is you. The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism.”

Obama told the students that things could get better if they were proactive.

“We have been through much darker times than these, and somehow each generation of Americans carried us through to the other side,” Obama said at the end of his speech. “Not by sitting around and waiting, but by leading that movement for change themselves … I believe in you, I believe you will help lead us in the right direction, and I will be right there with you every step of the way.”

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