The president is kicking off a series of campaign stops across the country ahead of the 2018 midterm elections
The former president spoke with voters at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Friday, where he received the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government and directly attacked Donald Trump as “a symptom, not the cause of” divisive politics over recent years.
“I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments where everyone of us as citizens of the United States need to determine who we are,” Mr Obama said Friday. “And as a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president, I’m here to deliver a simple message, and that is you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.”
Mr Obama’s return to campaign politics marks a clear departure from tradition for most former presidents, who often sit out of national elections in the immediate years following their White House tenure. On Friday, he called the current president out by name, criticising his most controversial moments in the White House and asking, “how hard is it to say Nazis are bad?”
But Mr Obama has embarked on a nationwide journey to warn “that this moment in our country is too perilous for Democratic voters to sit out,” according to his communications director, Katie Hill.
Leading up to the contentious and closely-watched midterms, the former president will make direct criticisms of his predecessor, Donald Trump, Ms Hill suggested ahead of his Friday speech.
“He will echo his call to reject the rising strain of authoritarian politics and policies,” she said. “And he will preview arguments he’ll make this fall, specifically that Americans must not fall victim to our own apathy by refusing to do the most fundamental thing demanded of us as citizens: vote.”
On Friday, the former president directly called out Mr Trump and Republicans for creating an ecosystem of divisive politics in Washington for years.
“[Donald Trump] is just capitalising on resentments politicians have been fanning for years,” Mr Obama said. “A fear and anger that has been rooted in our past, but also the enormous upheavals that have taken place during your brief lifetimes.”
Meanwhile, Mr Trump has launched his own nationwide campaign tour for Republican candidates — though he’s continued hosting massive rallies across the country ever since his 2016 victory.
Both presidents are releasing slates of endorsements for Congressional hopefuls, along with gubernatorial and mayoral candidates. Each are seen as wielding immense influence among voters in their respective parties, though it remains unclear what impact a presidential endorsement could have in any of the close races between Mr Trump’s allies and a bold new progressive left force sweeping through the Democratic Party.
Mr Obama has been reluctant to endorse a wave of Democratic Socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, both of whom unseated 10-term Democratic congressmen in primaries this year.
But his endorsement was seen as providing a boost to the campaign of Stacey Abrams, who is vying to become governor of Georgia and the first black female governor of a US state.