Obama returns with a thoughtful rebuke of Trumpism — and in 3 words, Trump shows why it might backfire

The return of Barack Obama to the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections gives President Donald Trump exactly what he wants: a foil.

Presence of Obama 'will give Trump a foil to run against,' Democratic strategist warns

Obama leaves after speaking at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on Friday. (John Gress/Reuters)

No big surprise that former U.S. president Barack Obama's speech in Illinois to kick off the 2018 midterms campaign would be a scholarly, coherent and measured rebuke of Trumpism.

It was self-effacing and introspective, showing a rich appreciation for American political thought and history, and delivered with the pacing of a popular college prof holding court in the most in-demand class on campus.

"Oh the nostalgia of seeing a President speak who knows things beyond what was on Fox and has read a book this century," commented former Obama staffer Dan Pfeiffer, in a wry Twitter post.

"It's really a reminder of what a real president sounds like," remarked David Kusnet, a former speech writer for president Bill Clinton, in a phone interview.

Watch: Obama says Trump 'is a symptom, not the cause' of polarization in the U.S.

Barack Obama says Trump 'is a symptom, not the cause' of division and polarization in the U.S.

5 years ago
Duration 3:04
Former U.S. president urges Democrats to vote in November's midterm elections and says Donald Trump is 'just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.'

It was also more than an hour long.

And with one mocking soundbite at a rally in Fargo, N.D. — perhaps with just three words of it — President Donald Trump showed precisely why it could be dangerous for Democrats to present Obama as an anti-Trump figurehead on the campaign trail.

"I fell asleep," Trump said of his reaction to Obama's speech. 

Cue the laughter.

If the president is looking for someone to campaign against, Democratic strategists warn, there could be no more perfect foil for him than his predecessor. Barack Obama is viewed by many conservatives as a liberal villain who wrecked American health care with his Affordable Care Act, which resulted in millions of uninsured people getting coverage.

His address Friday was given before a rapt audience of mostly college students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Kusnet, who served as the chief speech writer during the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, was impressed by Obama's performance.

"Just to listen to Barack Obama speaking, you could imagine he could give the same speech without notes," he said, "with his complete command of American history, American thinking, American public rhetoric — and this coming from a man whose American birth and American identity were crudely questioned."

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Billings, Mont., on Thursday. Trump mentioned the threat of impeachment proceedings, telling his supporters: 'If it does happen, it's your fault, because you didn't go out to vote.' (Jim Urquhart/Associated Press)

Obama implored voters not to expect to elect a "messiah," or to get sucked into ugly political tribalism. All Americans need, he said, are "decent, honest, hardworking" officials in government to work in the nation's best interests.

It seemed like a rather modest rallying cry to kick off the midterms season, with Democrats and Republicans battling for control of Congress. To some Democratic analysts, it sounded like the kind of common-sense proposal that's most needed amid yet more tumult in Trump's White House.

Referencing an anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times this week that revealed rogue White House staffers are secretly working to restrain Trump's most dangerous impulses, Obama chopped the air as he made his point.

"This is not normal," he said.

He referenced revered Republicans like former Illinois senator Everett Dirksen and president Abraham Lincoln, and highlighted the party's role in helping to pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He also warned about demagogues seizing on the politics of resentment to further divide Americans and slammed the Trump administration for pulling out of the global climate change agreement.

Yet to President Trump, and likely to many in his devoted base, it all sounded like a snoozefest.

Yes, Obama comes off cool and dignified, conceded Lisa Schiffren, a Trump supporter and former speech writer for former Republican vice-president Dan Quayle. But that quickly veers into what she views as "elite condescension."

"Self-sufficient, productive citizens … do not want to be lectured by this guy who trashed the economy," Schiffren said, blaming Obama for some Americans' health insurance premiums that soared during his administration.

Obama, on the other hand, pointed out that by the time he left office, "household income was near its all-time high, and the uninsured rate hit an all-time low. Poverty rates were still falling."

"I mention this just so when you hear how great the economy is doing right now, let's just remember when this recovery started," he told the crowd in Illinois.

A foil for Trump

Bringing Obama back to the stage now — in the absence of an obvious face for the Democratic Party — could be problematic for progressives, said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.

"It won't be helpful because this will give Trump a foil to run against," he said. "Trump is going to use this. He's going to keep the upset about Obama going. Whether it was rightful to be upset or not, it doesn't matter. And when he hits the stump, he'll go back to doing what he does best — attacking Obama."

Obama urges Democrats to vote in November's midterm elections. (John Gress/Reuters)

Sheinkopf said Obama seemed to be making an ideological argument in his speech, assailing "radical behaviour" rather than the Republican Party as a whole.

"Even if you don't agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you believe in more libertarian economic theories … I'm here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course," Obama said. "And should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government. It should not be Democratic or Republican."

With those words, Sheinkopf said, Obama seemed to be redefining November's midterms as a general battle of "outliers versus normalcy."

"That's a very different way to think about it," Sheinkopf said. It wasn't the "partisan screed" pundits and voters are most accustomed to hearing.

"He's trying to take out the Republican-versus-Democrat argument and create a new class of bad actors that need to be run out of office."

By doing so, Sheinkopf said, Obama also took the remarkable step of directly criticizing his successor by name, something that's rarely done, as presidents traditionally make a graceful exit without attacking the next person in power.

"Some would argue you don't do that. Or that it's too soon to do that," he said. "But just as Trump has broken norms, he's forced President Obama to redefine a norm. The genie is out of the bottle."

Watch: Obama speaks to Democrats in California day after strongly worded Trump critique

'If we don't step up things can get worse,' Obama tells Democrats in California

5 years ago
Duration 4:46
Former U.S. president Barack Obama gives passionate speech at a rally for Democratic congressional candidates in California, saying the biggest threat to democracy in the U.S. is apathy.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong