(CN) – Former President Barack Obama delivered a scathing critique of the Trump administration Friday, telling students at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign the current president is “capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
Obama’s speech at the university was delivered less than two months before midterm elections that could determine the course of Trump’s presidency. It is the first of several anticipated appearances by the former president ahead of the crucial election.
The former president described his successor as a “symptom” of “a fear and an anger that is rooted in our past but is also borne in our enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetime.”
Politics built on “resentment and paranoia” have “found a home” within the Republican Party, Obama added.
On a day when Trump said the Justice Department should root out the anonymous author of a critical op-ed piece published by the New York Times earlier this week, Obama emphasized the need to keep agencies like the Justice Department and FBI free of political pressure.
“It should not be Democratic or Republican, it should not be partisan to say that we don’t pressure the Department of Justice or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents or to explicitly call for the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because elections happen to be coming up,” Obama said.
“I am not making that up. That is not hypothetical,” he added.
Obama was referring to a September 3 tweet by Trump which lamented the indictments of Republican Representatives Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York.
Duncan was charged with using over $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use and Collins has been charged with insider trading.
Obama also questioned the state of the Republican Party.
Republican lawmakers have been “cozying up to the former head of the KGB” and actively working to block legislation that would defend U.S. elections from cyber attacks, he said.
He also slammed the administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, enacted in December.
“With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, without any checks or balances whatsoever, they’ve provided another $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to people like me, who I promise don’t need it, and don’t even pretend to pay for them,” he said.
The party is supposed to be one of “fiscal conservatism” but “suddenly deficits do not matter.”
Obama also discussed the current state of the U.S. economy.
“I am glad it has continued but when you hear about his economic miracle that has been going on, when the job number comes out, monthly job numbers and suddenly Republicans say it is a miracle, I have to kind of remind them, actually, those job numbers were in the same in 2015 and in 2016,” he said.
The administration’s unraveling of Obama-era environmental policy was discussed; specifically, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
“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 … We’re the only ones,” he said.
The former president also defended his milestone achievements: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Saying Republicans were “sabotaging” it, he warned students a total repeal of the law was coming if the party was “still in power next fall.”
The destruction unleashed from Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico last year also came up.
“I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions, but one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath,” Obama said.
Obama derided Trump’s statements last year after a woman was killed following protests at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on both sides.”
Obama appeared incredulous at the thought.
“We’re supposed to be standing 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 Nazis are bad?””
Tumult is something Americans are well acquainted with and capable of withstanding, he told the students, adding that progress “doesn’t move in a straight line.”
“That’s the story of America, a story of progress. Fitful progress, incomplete progress, but progress and that progress wasn’t achieved by just a handful of leaders making speeches,” he said.
“Quiet acts of heroism and dedication by citizens, by ordinary people” would win out, he said.
“Rather than be bystanders to history, ordinary people fought and marched and mobilized and built, yes, voted, to make history,” he said.
The speech, frequently interrupted by applause, ended on a hopeful note.
“In the end, the threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or the Koch Brothers and their lobbyists, or too much compromise from Democrats, or Russian hacking,” he said. “The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference…[and] cynicism.”