Obama: Reject 'politics of fear,' find common ground — and vote

Obama: Reject 'politics of fear,' find common ground — and vote

URBANA — Warning of dire threats to democracy from the “politics of fear,” former President Barack Obama on Friday urged Americans to reject apathy and vote in November.

In a far more pointed address than others he’s given since leaving the White House, Obama criticized President Donald Trump by name and went after Republicans “who know better” but “seem utterly unwilling to find the backbone to shield the institutions that make our democracy work.”

He criticized, directly and indirectly, Trump’s immigration policies that led to the separation of parents from their children; Trump’s pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “use the Department of Justice as a cudgel” to punish political opponents or protect GOP lawmakers; and his attacks on the press, among other issues.

“Appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security would be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or sound like us or don’t pray like we do, that’s an old playbook,” Obama said.

“It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said. “He’s just been capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been feeding for years, a fear and an anger that is rooted in our past, but also the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your lifetimes.

“In a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Our antibodies kick in and people of good will across the political spectrum call out the bigots and fearmongers and work together to get things done.

“But when there’s a vacuum in our lives, when we don’t vote, when we take our basic rights and freedom for granted ... then other voices fill the void. A politics of fear and resentment takes hold, and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems,” he said.

Obama said that kind of politics has “infected both parties” at various points in American history.

But today — in Congress especially, he said — it has “unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party.”

Congress has tried to unwind campaign finance laws, attacked voting rights, increased the deficit through tax cuts, voted to take away health insurance from millions, rejected the science of climate change and embraced conspiracy theories, like those involving Benghazi or “my birth certificate,” he said. Those are not conservative values, he said.

Obama also 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,” Obama 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.

The good news, Obama said, is that in two months, voters will have the chance to vote for change.

“I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States needs to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for. I’m here to deliver a simple message: that is, you need to vote, because our democracy depends on it.”

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

“The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference,” he said, noting that “there’s now more eligible voters in your generation than any other.”

While attacking Republicans in Congress, Obama appealed to Republican voters and others who oppose some Democratic Party ideas but “still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.”

He also encouraged liberals to listen to people who aren’t like them, and he cautioned against identity politics.

Obama also said Democrats shouldn’t use the same tactics that he accused Republicans of wielding to divide America, because it leads to voter cynicism.

 “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,” he said.

“We won’t win people over by calling them names or dismissing entire parts of the country as racist or sexist or homophobic. When I say ‘Bring people together,’ I mean all of our people,” he said.

He’s convinced Americans can still find common ground, though it’s hard to see with all the “nonsense in Washington.”

“I know there are white people who care deeply about black people being treated badly. I have talked to them and love them. I know there are black people who care deeply about the struggles of white rural America. I’m one of them, and I have a track record to prove it. I know there are evangelicals who are committed to doing something about climate change. I’ve seen them do the work,” he said.

“Common ground is out there. I see it every day,” said Obama, who drew applause at least a half-dozen times and left to a standing ovation.

Obama planned to take his message on the campaign trail starting today, supporting Democratic candidates in key races.

The former president greeted the boisterous crowd with, “It’s good to be home! It’s good to see corn!” and leading them in an “ILL-INI” chant.

He paid homage to the university, saying he was “deeply honored” to receive the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government.

“People are still wondering why I didn’t speak at the 2017 commencement,” he said, joking that he heard “there was speculation that I was boycotting campus until Antonio’s pizza reopened.”

“After eight years in the White House, I decided I needed to spend some time one-on-one with Michelle if I wanted to stay married,” he said.

President Trump responded to Obama’s speech at a fundraiser in North Dakota.

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

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who was in attendance, released a statement saying he appreciated Obama’s call for young people to vote, given that his daughter is a college senior.

“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,” he said, noting that the two parties recently passed sexual harassment reforms and worked together on workforce retraining.

The Republican National Committee noted that a new report issued Friday showed strong job growth and criticized Obama for saying “our country is on the wrong track.”

“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,” the RNC said.