There’s No Comparison
by Stacey Harris-Papaioannou, DAGR Communications Chair
I read the headline in disbelief. Obama was at U of I in Champaign stumping for Democrats. U of I is the well-known term for anybody from the tri-state area – Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana – for the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a 4-hour drive due south of Chicago. He was in his (and my) backyard so to speak. His last major speech as POTUS 44 was also in our Greek backyard—the then-brand-new Niarchos venue, in November 2016. It was his last overseas trip, to Democracy’s cradle.
We were all still shell-shocked over the election of Trump but somehow still clinging to some wild hope. As we watched Obama and listened to his words, we contemplated the threat the likes of a Trump presidency posed on the nation and the core of democratic principles. We had faced the results of a popular vote give the Democratic candidate nearly 3 million votes over the Republican contender – and yet thanks to the archaic Electoral College system, this man would become POTUS 45 anyway.
Obama’s words back in November 2016 tried to quell our panic, our fear.
“And so here, where democracy was born, we affirm once more the rights and the ideals and the institutions upon which our way of life endures. Freedom of speech and assembly -- because true legitimacy can only come from the people, who must never be silenced. A free press to expose injustice and corruption and hold leaders accountable. Freedom of religion -- because we’re all equal in the eyes of God. Independent judiciaries to uphold rule of law and human rights. Separation of powers to limit the reach of any one branch of government. Free and fair elections -- because citizens must be able to choose their own leaders, even if your candidate doesn’t always win. (Laughter.)
We compete hard in campaigns in America and here in Greece. But after the election, democracy depends on a peaceful transition of power, especially when you don’t get the result you want. (Applause.)
And as you may have noticed, the next American president and I could not be more different. (Applause.)
Fast forward 22 months. We noticed! And, now, he has returned to remind us what our priorities should be. The Dems have been criticized for using him to “get out the vote,” as it is unheard of for a former president to campaign for anybody, never mind lashing out at the man currently in office.
At Champaign-Urbana, Obama said the country is in a “backlash” moment.
“You happen to be coming of age during one of those moments,” Obama told the audience at U of I. “It did not start with Donald Trump ¯ he is a symptom, not the cause. He is just capitalizing on resentment that politicians have been fanning for years. A fear, an anger that is rooted in our past but is also borne in our enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.”
While Obama had in the past blasted Trump’s policies, this was the first speech in which he used his successor’s name.
Obama also addressed Trump’s tone-deaf comments after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, last year. The president claimed there were “some very fine people on both sides” during the mayhem that saw white supremacists squaring off against anti-racism protesters. Paralegal Heather Heyer, 32, was killed during the protest when a white supremacist struck her with his car.
“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers,” Obama said. “How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?”
The former president also applauded the women who have taken a stand in the Me Too movement, and the teens of Parkland, Florida, who are standing up to gun violence and the National Rifle Association. That’s how real change starts, Obama said. But nothing will get done if this generation doesn’t vote, he added.
Setting the record straight, he also noted, “By the time I left office, household income was near its all-time high, and the uninsured rate hit an all-time low, poverty rates were falling,” Obama added. “I mention this just so when you hear how great the economy is doing right now, let’s just remember when this recovery started.”
“The threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump,” Obama said. “The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism. Cynicism has led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day. To all the young people that 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 any other to change things.”
The only thing you have to do, Obama said, is “show up.”
Well, Obama showed up in my backyards, twice in 2 years—first in Athens and just a week or so back in Illinois. His words made me nostalgic – for a man respectful of all, charismatic and able to laugh at himself. His message is simple, framed to make us act, to reignite our enthusiasm and send everyone to the polls in November.
Show up! Engage! Vote!