In his trademark, soaring rhetoric, a campaign-style President Barack Obama delivered a speech at a Nelson Mandela anniversary event Tuesday that urged faith, tolerance and a turn from cynicism in these “strange and uncertain times.”
Without ever using his name, Obama delivered a repudiation of many tenets of President Donald Trump’s regime, pillorying a politics of fear and hate in favor of one built on inclusion and acceptance.
In vague terms, he painted Trump’s rise. “A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move,” he said. “It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.”
Obama alluded to Trump’s disregard of institutions like the FBI. “Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly,” he said. “Whereby elections and some pretense of democracies are maintained, the form of it, but those in power seem to undermine every institution and norm that give democracies meaning.”
He took hits at Trump’s insecurity and treasure trove of insulting nicknames in an aside that prompted knowing laughter from the crowd.
“Don’t you get a sense sometimes that people are so intent on putting people down and propping themselves up, they are small hearted?” he asked. “There must be something they’re just afraid of.”
Obama pivoted to specific issues like the immigration crisis boiling over at the U.S.- Mexico border and Trump’s gleeful shredding of objective truth in favor of political expediency.
“With the debate around immigration, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter…laws need to be followed…in our realm newcomers should make an effort to adapt to their new home, and we need to be able to engage with those people who feel that things are not orderly,” Obama said. “But that cannot be an excuse for immigration policy based on race…We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those expecting a better life.”
“For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be someone in my family, that could be my child,” he added.
He infused his “fake news” section with humor.
“We have to believe in objective reality. We have to believe in facts (another thing I didn’t think I’d have to lecture about),” he said with a wry chuckle. “If I say this is a podium and you say it’s an elephant, it’s hard for us to cooperate…I can’t find common ground if someone says climate change is just not happening when almost all the world’s scientists say it is. If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, I don’t know where to start.”
“Politicians have always lied—but it used to be if you caught them lying, they’d be like ‘aw man’,” he said to laughter. “Now they just keep on lying!”
He added that telling the truth used to be a “baseline,” not the mark of a great leader.
The former President’s tone became serious as he concluded his nearly 90-minute speech.
“It’s tempting right now, to give in to cynicism,” he said. “To believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back against.”
“We have to resist that cynicism because we’ve been through darker times. We’ve been in lower valleys,” he continued.
“Keep believing. Keep marching. Keep building. Keep raising your voice. Every generation has opportunity to remake the world…Now’s a good time to be fired up!”