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Barack Obama comes off the sidelines, at last

"f you’re tired of politicians who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers..."
Reuters/John Gress
“f you’re tired of politicians who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers…”
By Ephrat Livni
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If former US president Barack Obama has seemed reticent in offering up opinions about the current commander-in-chief, he’s not anymore. In his speech the “State of our Democracy” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus today (Sept. 7), Obama urged Americans to vote for change in these “dangerous times.”

“If you don’t like what’s going on right now, do not complain, don’t hashtag, don’t get anxious, don’t retreat, don’t binge on whatever it is you’re bingeing on, don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment, don’t boo, don’t put your head in the sand. Vote,” he said.

In the 45-minute speech to students, he was critical of Donald Trump’s administration and Republicans more broadly, saying, “[T]he politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican party.”

Obama dismissed the notion that current White House staffers are secretly resisting Donald Trump from within, referencing both the anonymous op-ed that ran in the New York Times on Sept. 5 and Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Fear. “The claim that everything will turn out okay because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders, that is not a check,” Obama said. “I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work… This is not normal. These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times.”

The former president also offered a solution—one that will only come about by electing new people to office. “The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful fear, a government that divides, is a government organized, energized by the inclusive many. That has to be the answer.” In view of his youthful audience, Obama reminded listeners, “This is not Coachella. You don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest hardworking people who are accountable and have America’s best interests at heart.”

Apart from partisan politics, the speech touched on every major issue of the day, from school shootings to police brutality to the #MeToo movement, white supremacists, poverty, literacy, health care, and equal opportunities for all. Obama offered the same solution to every issue—engagement in the democratic process. He urged his audience to vote at every level, not just for senators and representatives, but for mayors and sheriffs too, who will ensure that all law enforcement officers do a good job. Notably, he said, “we need more women bosses.”

Channeling John F. Kennedy’s famous line instructing Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you,” the president put the onus on Americans to make change themselves. “People ask me, ‘What are you gonna do to fix this election?’ But the question is what are you gonna do? You are the antidote. The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference and cynicism.”

He reminded listeners that progress takes time, but that improvements are possible when citizens participate in democracy. “Change happens, hope happens, not perfection.”

Urging his audience to get involved, Obama concluded, “I believe in you. I believe you will help lead us in the right direction and I will be there with you every step of the way.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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