Former President Obama stepped off the political sidelines on Friday and delivered a fiery rebuke to his successor, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' On student loans, Biden doesn't have an answer yet Grill company apologizes after sending meatloaf recipe on same day of rock star's death MORE, saying he has undermined trust in government and preyed on people's fears by inflaming racial and ethnic divisions.
“This is not normal. These are not ordinary times, these are dangerous times,” the former president, who since leaving office has avoided direct attacks on Trump, said during a speech at the University of Illinois.
The hourlong speech marked Obama's return to the political stage and was intended to rally Democrats ahead of November's midterm elections, which he framed as crucial for the future of the American democracy.
It was also a striking takedown of a sitting president by his predecessor, and Obama laid into Trump on a laundry list of issues, from his failure to single out white supremacists for blame over 2017’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., to the federal response to last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“We're 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?” he said.
Obama criticized Trump for politicizing the Department of Justice, unwinding the social safety net and busting the budget with a tax-cut bill he said would exacerbate inequality.
He ripped the Republican Congress over the same issues while mocking them for enabling Trump and tut-tutting his controversies.
Trump responded hours later by laughing off Obama's attacks, telling the audience at a Fargo, N.D., fundraiser that the speech bored him.
"I'm sorry. I watched it, but I fell asleep. I found he's very good — very good for sleeping," Trump said.
The president also hit his predecessor for claiming credit for a run of strong job growth, which began before Trump took office.
"This is called, not recovery, this is called rocket ship, what's happened," Trump said.
Obama directed the major portion of his remarks at disaffected voters, saying they cannot afford to not cast a ballot in the fall.
“If you thought elections don’t matter, I hope these last two years have corrected that impression,” he said.
The former president took aim at the author an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times who described an internal effort to stop Trump from taking drastic actions they believe would hurt the country, arguing this was far from heroic work.
“That's not how our democracy's supposed to work," Obama said. "These people aren't elected. They are not accountable. They are not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that is coming out of the White House and then saying don’t worry we are preventing the other 10 percent.”
Obama had long sought to distance himself from the political fights of the Trump era, rarely criticizing the president even as Trump frequently lashed out at his predecessor.
The former president left office saying he wanted to follow the example of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who stayed out of the political arena after departing Washington. And in his opening remarks, he talked about how George Washington had gracefully exited the stage, setting a path for future presidents.
But Obama and his aides have said he would jump into the fray if he saw norms being violated or core achievements overturned.
Obama argued that voters across the political spectrum can serve as a check on Trump and accused administration officials and Republicans of failing to rein in the president's worst impulses.
“Even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy ... I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.”
Obama said the fanning of racial and class resentments did not “start with Donald Trump.”
“He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said. “He's just capitalizing on resentments politicians have been fanning for years.”
Obama had already waded into the midterms before Friday's speech, endorsing a slate of 81 federal and state office-seekers last month. But his remarks are the clearest sign yet he plans to ramp up his involvement.
The former president will hit the trail for Democrats starting over the weekend, when he makes a stop for seven House candidates in California and stumps next week for Ohio gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray, his office said.
The decision by the most recognizable figure in the Democratic Party could energize his supporters, but it also comes with the risk of motivating Republicans to head to the polls.
Trump has repeatedly used Obama as a foil to fire up his base, a line he could use in several states where vulnerable Democrats are trying to hang on to Senate seats.
But Obama indicated he was willing to bear that risk and take on a more public role to galvanize Democrats, who have dealt with internal squabbles since he left office.
The timing of the speech produced a remarkable split-screen, where all three cable news networks carried Obama's remarks live at the same time Trump made comments aboard Air Force One that underlined his predecessor's concerns.
The president told reporters the Justice Department should uncover the Times op-ed author's identity, citing "national security," and called the piece a "disgrace."
Trump has previously accused Obama and his administration, without evidence, of illegally spying on his campaign while investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"Looking more & more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally being spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE and the DNC. Ask her how that worked out — she did better with Crazy Bernie. Republicans must get tough now. An illegal Scam!" Trump tweeted on July 22.
While Obama condemned those kind of remarks, some Republicans said the former president's decision to step back into the spotlight could backfire.
"The more President @BarackObama speaks about the ‘good ole years’ of his presidency, the more likely President @realDonaldTrump is to get re-elected," tweeted GOP Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators introduce bill aimed at protecting Ukrainian civilians Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE (S.C.).
"In fact, the best explanation of President Trump’s victory are the 'results' of the Obama Presidency!"
—Updated at 3:15 p.m.