Obama calls Trump 'a symptom, not the cause' of U.S. division and polarization

Former U.S. president Barack Obama said Friday his successor, Donald Trump, is "a symptom, not the cause" of division and polarization in the U.S.

Trump  is "just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years," Obama said at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was accepting an award on ethics in government.

His speech served as his first steps into the political fray ahead of the fall campaign. While he has endorsed candidates and appeared at fundraising events, he has spent much of his post-presidency on the political sidelines.

Before Friday, Obama, following tradition, had been reluctant to publicly criticize his successor, to the frustration of some Democrats. Last week, he appeared to chide Trump, without naming him, in a eulogy at the funeral of the late Republican Sen. John McCain.

But in unusually direct terms in Illinois, he made clear his concerns about politics in the Trump era and implored voters — especially young people — to show up at the polls in the November midterm elections.

Biting criticism

"Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you this moment really is different," Obama said. "The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire."

He later added: "This is not normal."

A Democrat, Obama said "the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party."

He said the Republican-controlled Congress has championed the unwinding of campaign finance laws, voted multiple times to take health care away from ordinary Americans and made it harder for minorities to vote.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Billings, Mont., on Thursday. Trump mentioned the threat of impeachment proceedings, telling his supporters: 'If it does happen, it's your fault, because you didn't go out to vote.' (Jim Urquhart/Associated Press)

He added that the Republican Party has "cozied up" to the former head of the KGB, a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and is calling out lawmakers for not standing up to Trump.

"What happened to the Republican Party?" he asked, saying certain issues should go beyond party lines.

"It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents, or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up."

Obama said Americans and politicians of both parties should stand up against discrimination, and "stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers."

"How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?" he asked.

Trump shrugs off criticism

Trump commented on the Obama speech during a campaign event in North Dakota, claiming he fell asleep watching Obama's speech.

"I'm sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep," he said, adding, "I found he's very good for sleeping."

Trump said Obama was trying to take credit for this "incredible thing that's happening to our country." He went on to talk about economic gains since he took office.

Preview of campaign

The speech was a preview of the argument that Obama is likely to make throughout the fall.

The Nov. 6 midterm elections are widely seen as a referendum on Trump. While the president touts fulfilled campaign promises such as tax cuts and deregulation, his tenure has been clouded by a widening probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and growing questions about his behaviour and fitness for office, even by some within his administration.

Both parties traditionally see a large drop-off in turnout in non-presidential election years, but Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to energize voters with talk of high stakes.

Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to win a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and two seats in the U.S. Senate. Control of one or both chambers would allow them not only to foil Trump's agenda but also to open congressional investigations into his administration.

Democratic control of the House would also allow the party to press impeachment proceedings, although the party has broadly steered clear of making that threat.

On Thursday, Trump told his supporters to stave off any impeachment proceedings against him by keeping Republican majorities in Congress.

"It's so ridiculous," he told a rally in Montana, referring to impeachment. "But if it does happen, it's your fault, because you didn't go out to vote. OK? You didn't go out to vote. You didn't go out to vote. That's the only way it could happen."

Obama will also appear at a campaign event in Southern California this weekend before heading to Ohio next week and, later in September, to Illinois and Pennsylvania.

With files from Reuters

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