Obama breaks his silence

In blistering broadside, former president paints Trump as bad for democracy

TWO OF BARACK OBAMA’S most notable speeches didn’t take place during his presidency, or even during his own campaigns. But both marked a crossroads. During the first — at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston the nation faced decisions on how to move forward in multiple, deadly wars in a post-9/11 world. The second came last night as the country questions its leader’s management of a pandemic that has sent more than 170,000 Americans to their graves and the economy into a tailspin.

 From the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, and flanked by the US Constitution, Obama played both taskmaster and conscience, giving the audience a lesson on American democracy — its roots, how the presidency is intended to uphold it, and the challenges that put its existence at stake.

Obama said the president has “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”

“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” Obama said. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever.”

Leadership, he said, is key. “Our ability to work together to solve big problems like a pandemic depends on a fidelity to facts and science and logic and not just making stuff up,” Obama said, perhaps in reference to Trump’s pandemic era remarks that people could ingest disinfectants to treat the virus.

Obama has long stuck to conventional norms and held back on criticizing his successor, saying in 2016 that he wanted to be “respectful of the office” and give the then-president-elect the opportunity to find his own way. He followed through even with almost daily smears from Trump, until last night, in a speech that seemed almost four years in the making.

Obama said he waited for Trump to show “some interest in taking the job seriously,” but the former reality TV star “never did.”

He contrasted his description of Trump’s presidency with Joe Biden’s actions as his vice president in an effort to show who is capable of leading the country, and who isn’t. That included Biden’s work overseeing the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package, and an infrastructure investment plan credited for jump-starting the economy during the recession.

Obama went as far as to say that “this president and those in power” are counting on voter cynicism and making it “as hard as possible” to vote.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

His short-term solution to the country’s woes — to elect Biden — comes at a time when voters wonder if it’s safe to vote in person, and if their ballot will be properly counted due to Trump-imposed changes to the postal system. “Do not let them take away your democracy. Make a plan right now for how you’re going to get involved and vote,” Obama said.

Obama spoke just before vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, handing off the torch as the first black president to the first woman of color to accept a major party nomination to a national ticket.