LIVE! Obama at the UI

LIVE! Obama at the UI

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Former President Barack Obama will be on the University of Illinois campus at 11 a.m. today (podcast of the speech and reaction here) to deliver a speech at Foellinger Auditorium before accepting the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government. Our team of reporters will have updates throughout:

What'd you think of his speech? Submit a Letter to the Editor here


At 2:45 p.m., Obama's motorcade returned to FlightStar in Savoy. Minutes later, his flight departed.


President Trump responded to Obama’s speech by saying he fell asleep during it.

“I’m sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep,” he said. “I found he’s very good, very good for sleeping.”

Trump was speaking at a fundraiser in North Dakota.


An hour-long speech at Foellinger Auditorium wasn't Barack Obama's only stop in C-U.

Afterward, he spoke at the nearby President's House before a gathering of UI dignitaries. Then he visited Caffe Paradiso on Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, mingling with students and staff and posing for pictures.

"You guys gotta encourage each other to vote," he said.

When he left, the crowd shouted, "Blue wave! Blue wave!"


U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis  also released the following statement after attending Obama’s speech:

“I appreciate former President Obama choosing the Urbana-Champaign campus to accept this award because it’s a true testament to the hard work by President Killeen, the faculty at UIUC, and students. While I could focus on the areas in his speech where I disagreed or make my own criticisms of the other side, I believe it’s better for our country and for students to hear about where Democrats and Republicans have worked together. Opportunities for Americans to hear about the bipartisanship that exists in Washington are rare, but worthy of attention.

“Some of the issues mentioned by former President Obama, Republicans and Democrats have come together to address this Congress. Republicans and Democrats led the nation by passing the first sexual harassment reforms to the Legislative Branch in more than 20 years. This House overwhelmingly passed the first bipartisan bill to reform our prison system in years. He mentioned innovation and re-training our workforce, which this Congress continues to lead on.

“I brought my daughter, who is a senior in college and part of that age group who are less likely to vote, so I appreciated his call on young people to exercise a right so many generations have fought to protect. It’s important because their vote will help determine if they are graduating in a growing economy where job opportunities are plentiful, like we have now, or a stagnant economy where graduates have few choices.”


After the speech. Republican National Committee spokesperson Ellie Hockenbury issued the following statement:

“Just hours after a new report showed job growth yet again exceeding expectations, President Obama stepped back into the spotlight to make the case that our country is on the wrong track. 2016 is over, but President Obama is still dismissing the millions of voters across the country who rejected a continuation of his policies in favor of President Trump’s plan for historic tax cuts, new jobs and economic growth. Democrats may have a new resistor-in-chief on the campaign trail, but they’ll need more than a message of resist and obstruct to win this November.”


While former President Barack Obama saved his harshest words for Republicans, he also encouraged liberals to be willing to listen to people not like them.

“The whole notion that Democrats need to choose between trying to appeal to white working class voters or voters of color and women and LGBT Americans. That’s nonsense,” he said. “I got votes from every demographic. We won by reaching out to everybody and competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote.”

He also cautioned against identity politics.

“We can’t do that if we immediately disregard what others have to say from the start because they’re not like us,” he said. “Because they’re white, or they’re black, or a man, or a woman, or gay or straight.

“If we think that somehow there’s no way they can understand how I’m feeling, that they therefore don’t have any standing to speak on certain matters because we’re only defined by certain characteristics, that doesn’t work if you want a healthy democracy,” he said.

And he said liberals shouldn’t use the same tactics that he accused Republicans of using to divide citizens.

“Eroding our civic institutions and our civic trust and making people angrier and yelling at each other...that always works better for people who don’t believe in the power of collective action,” he said. “The more cynical people are about government, the angrier, the more dispirited they are about the prospects for change, the more likely the powerful are able to maintain their power.”

And he said that “progress does not happen all at once.”

“Better is good,” he said. “I used to have to tell my young staff this all the time in the White House.”

“The Civil Rights Act didn’t end racism, but it made things better. Social Security didn’t eliminate all poverty for seniors, but it made things better for millions of people,” Obama said. “Don’t let people tell you the fight’s not worth it because you won’t get everything you want. … You can make it better.”


Former President Barack Obama said young people need to vote if they want representatives that share their views.

“The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference,” he told the audience of students. “There’s now more eligible voters in your generation than any other, which means your generation has more power than any to change things.”

He said that in the 2014 midterm election, “fewer than one in five young people voted.”

“This whole project of self government only works if everyone is doing their part,” he said.

“Don’t complain, don’t hashtag, don’t get anxious, don’t retreat, don’t binge on whatever it is you’re binging on, don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment,” he said. “Vote!”


Former President Obama addressed the anonymous op-ed written in The New York Times this week that said senior officials in the White House are working to prevent President Trump’s worst instincts.

“That is not a check. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work,” he said. “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 the White House and then saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 percent.’

“This is not normal. These are extraordinary times, and they’re dangerous times,” he said.

Instead, he encouraged people to vote for Democrats in the midterms to act as a check on the Trump administration.


Former President Obama uttered the name of President Donald Trump, something he’s tried to avoid doing since leaving office.

While saying that America has always progressed, he said that “for every two steps forward, there’s one step back.”

“Each time we’ve gotten closer to those ideals, someone pushes back. More often, it’s manufactured by the powerful and privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical,” he said. “Because that helps them keep the status quo and keep their privilege.”

He said today is one of those times where America is taking a step back.

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


“I-L-L” former President Barack Obama said to open his speech.

“I-N-I” the crowd of students responded.

“OK, just checking to see if you’re awake,” Obama said. “It’s good to be home. It’s good to see corn.”

He also addressed why he didn’t speak at the 2017 commencement the University of Illinois invited him to.

“When I declined, I heard there was speculation that I was boycotting campus until Antonio’s pizza reopened,” he joked, saying the real reason was that, “after eight years in the White House, I needed to spend some time one-on-one with Michelle if I wanted to stay married.

“I also wanted to spend some quality time with my daughters,” he said.

Obama began his speech with a call to vote in the midterm elections.

“You need to vote because our democracy depends on it,” he said.

While he said that some may think he’s exaggerating, “just a glance at the headlines should really tell that this moment is different, the stakes are higher, the consequences of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”

Listen here


On Twitter, Obama delivered a preview this morning: “Today I’m at the University of Illinois to deliver a simple message to young people all over the country: You need to vote, because our democracy depends on it.”

We'll carry his speech on WDWS 1400-AM and stream it live here. Our coverage starts at 10:50 a.m.

According to his staff,  Obama chose to "deliver this message in downstate Illinois because he believes that our democracy is stronger when we make a point of reaching out to communities outside of our own. In his 2016 year-end press conference, he spoke about the importance of 'showing up' in places where people feel they are not being heard, of bridging divides between communities, and of how much more unites Americans than divides us."


As buzz continues to grow inside a now-packed Foellinger Auditorium on campus, about a dozen curious onlookers  gathered near Willard Aiport in Savoy, hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama's arrival.

Secret Service personnel are on the rainy scene.

Shortly after 10 a.m., a motorcade left Willard Airport en route to campus.

— Ben Zigterman


A row of seats up front has been reserved for Sen. Dick Durbin, former Gov. Jim Edgar, Rep. Rodney Davis, state Sen. Scott Bennett, state Rep. Carol Ammons, both C-U mayors and state's attorney Julia Rietz. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s spokeswoman said Thursday he would be unable to attend.

Also in the house: UI Chancellor Robert Jones and UI athletic director Josh Whitman.

Jones was spotted huddling with Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker as well as Durbin.

National media has a spot, too, as today's speech by Obama is expected to kick off his campaign swing for fall midterms.

— Julie Wurth


A line of rain-soaked students stretched from Foellinger Auditorium north toward the Illini Union as officials began allowing entrance into the iconic building on the UI's Quad.

Media and students were required to check umbrellas when they entered Foellinger.

Once inside, those in the audience shifted into full selfie mode, snapping pictures of the presidential scene.

Sophomore Shannon Rooney snagged one of the seats for the speech: “I just thought it would be a cool opportunity. Everyone in the school tried to get a ticket.”

— Julie Wurth

Memory Lane

We asked N-G columnist and politcal writer Tom Kacich to weigh in on other presidential visits to C-U. Ask him about it here:

President William Howard Taft came to town on Feb. 11, 1911. Spent a little more than an hour here, arrived at Champaign train station, reviewed military cadets at the UI and left from train station in Urbana.

President Gerald Ford here on a campaign trip on March 6, 1976. Went to Champaign Centennial HS, Lyle Grace farm north of Urbana and Willard Airport.

President Lyndon Johnson at Chanute on July 19, 1965. Bloomington airport couldn’t accommodate Air Force One so they landed at Chanute and took three helicopters to Bloomington for the funeral of former Illinois Governor, UN Ambassador and two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. After attending the services they came back to Chanute briefly and then flew back to Washington.

President Bill Clinton here on Jan. 28, 1998 with Vice President Al Gore. He spoke to about 12,000 at the Assembly Hall. The most famous part of that trip, though, was when Air Force One became stuck in the mud along the Willard Airport runway. The president and his entourage left Willard on another jet about an hour later than scheduled.

Who's coming

An update of the guest list for former President Barack Obama's speech at Foellinger Auditorium:

Planning to attend: U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville; state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign; state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign; Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin; and Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen.

— Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin confirmed Thursday night that he will attend, as well as speak at the ceremony afterward honoring Obama with the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government, as he has in past years.

Excerpts from recent speeches

On today's politics

"So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it's politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that."

— Eulogy for U.S. Sen. John McCain, Sept. 1, 2018

On the rise of authoritarianism

"Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained — the form of it — but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. In the West, you've got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China's model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good? The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media — once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity — has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories. ...

"(H)istory shows that whenever progress is threatened, and the things we care about most are in question, we should heed the words of Robert Kennedy — spoken here in South Africa, he said, 'Our answer is the world's hope: It is to rely on youth. It's to rely on the spirit of the young.'

"So, young people, who are in the audience, who are listening, my message to you is simple: Keep believing; keep marching; keep building; keep raising your voice."

— July 2018 speech in South Africa celebrating Nelson Mandela

On truth and the free press

"Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet-driven fabrications; we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment; we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they're caught in a lie and they just double-down and they lie some more. ...

"We see it in the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. And, as with the denial of rights, the denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage or disinformation; and we have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people, not just blind obedience."

— July 2018 Mandela speech

On diversity of thought and free speech

"If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don't be scared to take somebody on. Don't feel like you've got to shut your ears off because you're too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they're not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you'll strengthen your own position, and you'll hone your arguments. And maybe you'll learn something and realize you don't know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe, but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins."

— May 2016 Commencement at Rutgers University

On voting

"It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote. There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting. ...

"But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms: second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three Americans — African Americans — turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out. ... People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like, well, what kinds of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that, and what? You know what? Just vote. It's math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It's not that complicated."

— May 2016 commencement at Howard University