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A different take on Obama’s speech to students

To my hearing, Obama seemed mostly to want – as he did during his active political career – to encourage young people to get in the habit of voting and to keep that habit.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaking at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Urbana, Illinois, on Friday.
REUTERS/John Gress

Former President Barack Obama, who has stayed pretty quiet since handing over the White House keys to Donald Trump, gave a speech Friday at the University of Illinois. It is generally being portrayed as a major assault on Trump. But, as with Obama’s remarks last week at the John McCain memorial service, I had a different take.

Yes, Trump was criticized. But, c’mon, compared to the way Trump goes after everyone who ever criticized him, and even many who never did but didn’t obey his whim, or didn’t do either of those things but just said something Trump didn’t like, Obama’s direct references to Trump were oblique, and the indirect references were mild and incredibly justified.

To my hearing, Obama seemed mostly to want – as he did during his active political career – to encourage young people to get in the habit of voting and to keep that habit. He also (cleverly, I thought) introduced the audience to a handy reminder. It’s the thought that is intended by the old saying “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But Obama’s version, which I liked, goes: “Better is good.” The quote on that is near the bottom of this post.

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But on the first point, the voting part, Obama said:

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 that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.

Not too controversial. Obama has been encouraging voter turnout his whole career. Young people have lower turnout rates than older people. What could be less obnoxious or more laudable than encouraging young people to get in the voting habit?

I’ll provide a few other excerpts below. Yes, you can find quite a few references to Trumpism that don’t include a mention of his name. But let’s get the two direct references out of the way and see if they are anywhere near as nasty or brutal as most treatments have suggested. Here’s one:

Of course, there’s always been another, darker aspect to America’s story. Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line. There’s a reason why progress hasn’t been easy and why throughout our history, every two steps forward seems to sometimes produce one step back. Each time we painstakingly pull ourselves closer to our founding ideals—that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, the ideals that say every child should have opportunity and every man and woman in this country who is willing to work hard should be able to find a job and support a family and pursue the American dream, the ideals that say we have the responsibility to care for the sick and infirm and we have a responsibility to conserve the amazing bounty, the natural resources of this country and of this planet for future generations — each time we have gotten closer to those ideals, somebody somewhere has pushed back. The status quo pushes back.

Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because it helps them maintain the status quo, and keep their power, and keep their privilege. And you happen to be coming of age during one of those moments.

It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He is just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years. A fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but is also borne out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.

Give me a break. This is mild, backhanded criticism of Trump who, rather than being skewered for singlehandedly threatening the great American experiment in democracy, is portrayed as merely fanning the flames of divisiveness that others started.

The second direct reference likewise borders on indirect. If you blink, you won’t notice it in this passage, which, again is mostly focused on encouraging the students to get involved, even if it means voting for imperfect candidates who will nonetheless work to make things better (and don’t blink or you’ll miss the actual mention of Trump):

You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert, this is not Coachella. We don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hardworking people who are accountable and who have America’s best interest at heart. And they’ll step up and they’ll join our government and they will make things better if they have support. One election will not fix everything that needs to be fixed. But it will be a start.

And you have to start it. What’s going to fix our democracy is you. People ask me what are you going to do for the election? Now, the question is, what are you going to do? You are the antidote, your participation and spirit and determination, not just in this election but in every subsequent election, and in the days between elections. Because in the end, the threat to our democracy does not just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or the Koch brothers and their lobbyists or too much compromise by Democrats or Russian hacking.

The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat is cynicism. Cynicism led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day. To all the young people who are here today, there are now more eligible voters in your generation than in any other. Which means your generation now has more power than anybody to change things. If you want it, you can make sure America gets out of its current funk. If you actually care about it, you have the power to make sure we seize a brighter future. But to exercise that clout, to exercise that power, you have to show up.

OK, those are the only two mentions of Trump’s name. (By the way, this clown, writing a commentary on Obama’s Illinois speech for Fox News, headlined “ Obama attacks successful Trump in bitter swan song,” mentions Trump six times, which is three times as often as Obama did. So who, exactly is obsessed with Trump?)

Nonetheless, Obama seems to have declared that after maintaining virtual radio silence about politics since leaving office, he is ready to use his voice to help Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Last I looked, his right to do so is covered by the First Amendment.

Anyway, I always thought Obama was eloquent and classy, and seems even more so now that we’ve met his successor, who is somewhat less eloquent and classy. So here are a few of my other favorite outtakes from Obama’s  remarks (see if they don’t further support my argument about what was Obama’s main point, namely, please vote):

Even though your generation is the most diverse in history with a greater acceptance and celebration of our differences than ever before, those are the kinds of conditions that are ripe for exploitation by politicians who have no compunction and no shame about tapping into America’s dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division. Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do—that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time. And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in and people of goodwill across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear mongers, and work to compromise to get things done, and promote the better angels of our nature.

When there’s a vacuum in our democracy, when we don’t vote, when we take our basic rights and freedoms for granted, when we turn away and stop paying attention and stop engaging and stop believing, and look for the newest diversion, the electronic versions of bread and circuses, then other voices fill the void.

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold, and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. You know, promise to fight for the little guy even though they cater to the most wealthy and powerful. Promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further. And they appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all. Sound familiar?

(Speaking of what Republicans have done with their control of Congress and the White House over the past year and a half):

This is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism. Suddenly, deficits don’t matter, even though just two years ago, when the deficit was lower, they said, I couldn’t help working families or seniors because it was the deficit was in existential crisis. What changed? What changed? They’re subsidizing corporate polluters with taxpayer dollars, allowing dishonest lenders to take advantage of veterans and students and consumers again.

They’ve made it so that the only nation on earth to pull out of the global climate agreement — it’s not North Korea, it’s not Syria, it’s not Russia or Saudi Arabia — it’s us. The only country! There are a lot of countries in the world. We’re the only ones. They are undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia. What happened to the Republican Party?

Its central organizing principle in foreign policy was the fight against communism, and now they are cozying up to the former head of the KGB, actively blocking legislation that would defend our elections from Russian attack. What happened? Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act has already cost more than three million Americans their health insurance. And if they are still in power next fall, you better believe they are coming at it again — they’ve said so. …

It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans. We are supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them. We are supposed to stand up to discrimination. And we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?

And let me tell you something, particularly young people here, better is good. I used to have to tell my young staff this all the time in the White House. Better is good. That’s the history of progress in this country—not perfect, better. The Civil Rights Act didn’t end racism, but it made things better. Social Security didn’t eliminate all poverty for seniors, but it made things better for millions of people. …

In the last midterm elections in 2014, fewer than one in five young people voted. One in five. Not two in five, or three—one in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part. Don’t tell me your vote doesn’t matter. … Don’t retreat. Don’t binge on whatever it is you’re binging on. Don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment. Don’t put your head in the sand. Don’t boo. Vote. Vote!

The full text is available, via the Atlantic, here.

All the other coverage of the speech that I can find treats it as a harsh attack on Trump. Is this perhaps a case of reverse discrimination by people who have called so many things Trump has said as harsh attacks that they feel obliged to exaggerate the harshness of the Obama speech?