Former President Barack Obama on Friday lamented the state of politics today, calling out his successor, Donald Trump, by name as he started his push to ramp up Democratic energy for midterms.
Mr. Obama made his return to the political arena by giving a speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after receiving the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government.
He praised America’s accomplishments but said there is a darker side to progress when politicians peddle resentment and mistrust to preserve the status quo.
“It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause,” Mr. Obama said. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
Mr. Obama also took a jab at Mr. Trump’s emphasis on the economy, telling the audience “remember when that recovery started.”
Mr. Trump shot back just an hour after Mr. Obama’s fiery rebuke wrapped up, telling the audience at a North Dakota rally that he “fell asleep” while watching it.
“I watched it, but I fell asleep. I’ve found he’s very good, very good for sleeping,” he said.
He also said that the former president couldn’t take credit for the current economic boom. If Democrats were in power there would be “negative numbers” instead of a 4.2 job growth, Mr. Trump argued.
Mr. Obama also addressed The New York Times op-ed by an anonymous author claiming to be part of a “resistance” within the administration, saying having officials undermining the president isn’t good for the country.
“That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work!” he said. “They’re not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the craziness that’s coming out of this White House.”
The former president also went after Mr. Trump’s recent controversial statements about the Justice Department and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama explained that he had his own fights with the media, Fox News in particular, but said threatening the press goes too far.
“We are Americans,” he said. “We’re supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them.”
The former president explained he planned on following precedent “to gracefully exit” the political stage, but speaks now as a citizen.
“As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president, but as a fellow citizen I’m here to deliver a simple message and that is: You need to vote because our democracy depends on it,” he told students.
Mr. Obama warned that the political situation is different and has “more dire” consequences if people stay away from the polls.
While he acknowledged that both parties had faults over the course of their histories, he criticized the current Republicans in power, saying today’s GOP is “is not what Lincoln had in mind, I think.”
“Over the past few decades, the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party,” Mr. Obama said.
He slammed the Republicans for their stance on campaign finance laws, environmental issues, voting rights and “wild conspiracy theories” such as the ones surrounding his birth certificate. In particular, he took aim at the GOP tax cut bill, which democrats on Capitol Hill have dragged as part of their midterm strategy.
“What has happened to the Republican Party?” Mr. Obama asked, after criticizing how some work for cooperation with Russia.
“In a healthy democracy, there’s some checks and balances on this kind of behavior, this kind of inconsistency. But right now there’s nothing,” he said.
Republicans pushed back against Mr. Obama’s criticism.
Chairman of the Freedom Caucus Rep. Mark Meadows praised the former president’s delivery, as a evidence Mr. Trump was the right pick for president.
Similarly, the Republican National Committee brushed off Mr. Obama’s lengthy rebuke of their time in power, recalling the surge of conservative votes that gave the GOP control of both the House and Senate.
“In 2016, voters rejected President Obama’s policies and his dismissiveness towards half the country. Doubling down on that strategy won’t work in 2018 either,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said in a statement to The Washington Times.
Republican Rep. Steve Stivers welcomed Mr. Obama’s return from political retirement.
Mr. Stivers, who chairs the House GOP’s campaign arm, said before Mr. Obama’s speech on Friday that he would welcome the former president back into the political fray.
“I have limited experience on this — my experience on that is 2010, 2012, 2014,” Mr. Stivers, Ohio Republican, told reporters at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “So for three cycles President Obama fired up Republicans like nobody, and I’m happy if he wants to do it again.”
On the other hand, Mr. Obama sang the Democratic Party’s praises for elevating younger candidates and new ideas. He touted the number of female candidates running for office, saying “we need more women in charge.”
Regarding specific issues, the former president embraced the progressive call for Medicare for all and warned voters that Obamacare is on the line should Republicans keep hold of Congress. He also highlighted the difference between the parties on gun rights.
He urged voters to back politicians “who think you are more important than a check from the NRA.”
Throughout his speech, the former president emphasized that voters were the ultimate check on government authority. As he concluded, Mr. Obama reiterated his call for younger voters to flock to the polls in November and not simply complain online or protest.
“You can be the generation that, in a critical moment, stood up and showed us just how precious this experiment in democracy really is,” Mr. Obama said.
• David Sherfinksi and Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.