World

Obama slams U.S. government's virus response in online graduation speech

Former U.S. president Barack Obama on Saturday criticized U.S. leaders overseeing the nation's response to the coronavirus, telling college graduates in an online commencement address that the pandemic shows many officials "aren't even pretending to be in charge."

Former president says some officials 'aren't even pretending to be in charge'

In this Dec. 12, 2018, file photo, former U.S. president Barack Obama accepts the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award at a ceremony in New York. On Saturday, Obama spoke during a two-hour livestreaming event for historically black colleges and universities during which he called out U.S. leadership for its pandemic response. (Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press)

Former U.S. president Barack Obama on Saturday criticized U.S. leaders overseeing the nation's response to the coronavirus, telling college graduates in an online commencement address that the pandemic shows many officials "aren't even pretending to be in charge."

Obama spoke on Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition, a two-hour event for students graduating from historically black colleges and universities broadcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. His remarks were unexpectedly political, given the venue, and touched on current events beyond the virus and its social and economic impacts.

"More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing," Obama said. "A lot them aren't even pretending to be in charge."

Obama did not name President Donald Trump or any other federal or state officials in his comments. But last Friday, he harshly criticized Trump's handling of the pandemic as an "absolute chaotic disaster" in a call with 3,000 members of his administrations obtained by Yahoo News.

The commencement remarks were the latest sign that Obama intends to play an increasingly active role in the coming election. He has generally kept a low profile in the years since he left office, even as Trump has disparaged him. Obama told supporters on the call that he would be "spending as much time as necessary and campaigning as hard as I can" for Joe Biden, who served as his vice-president.

As he congratulated the graduates Saturday and commiserated over the enormous challenges they face given the devastation and economic turmoil the virus has wrought, the former president noted the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was killed while jogging on a residential street in Georgia.

'The status quo needs fixing'

"Let's be honest: A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country," Obama said. "We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn't submit to their questioning.

"Injustice like this isn't new. What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing, that the old ways of doing things don't work."

In the face of a void in leadership, he said, it would be up to the graduates to shape the future.

In November of 2016, Obama meets with president-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

"If the world's going to get better, it's going to be up to you," he said.

It is a perilous time for the nation's historically black colleges and universities, which have long struggled with less funding and smaller endowments than their predominantly white peers and are now dealing with the financial challenges of the coronavirus. Even at the better-endowed HBCUs, officials are bracing for a tough few years.

Obama's message to high school students came at the end of an hourlong television special featuring celebrities, including LeBron James, Yara Shahidi and Ben Platt, and was less sharp-edged than his speech to the college graduates. He urged the young graduates to be unafraid despite the current challenges facing the nation and to strive to be part of a diverse community.

"Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path," Obama said.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now