President Obama, shown while still in office, delivered two online addresses May 16 to graduating students across the country. (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)
Taking a thinly veiled swipe at President Trump, President Obama on Saturday decried racial inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and told graduating college students that the crisis has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing.”
“A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” Obama said in a livestreamed commencement address to students graduating from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.
Obama delivered the speech, followed later in the day by a nationally televised address to high school graduates, as educational institutions across the country have been forced to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies to comply with stay-at-home and social distancing orders during the public health emergency.
The speeches turned the national spotlight on Obama at a time when the former president is becoming a central figure in the 2020 presidential campaign. His vice president, Joe Biden, has emerged as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee and is embracing the Obama legacy.
And after largely keeping away from politics during the primaries, as he has for much of his post-presidency, Obama has lately aimed a series of withering critiques at Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis and other matters.
Trump has targeted his predecessor for a fresh round of attacks for an ill-defined scandal Trump has called “Obamagate.”
As the nation’s first African American president, Obama had a special message for black college graduates Saturday about the challenge of confronting racial inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and spotlighted by the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot dead after being chased down by two white men in Georgia.
“Let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” Obama said.
“We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”
Saturday night, Obama also addressed 2020 high school graduates in an hourlong broadcast carried by major networks and across social media platforms. The event was sponsored by XQ Institute, an education reform nonprofit; the LeBron James Family Foundation; and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
Obama urged high school graduates to be willing to challenge a status quo he said was not well managed by their elders.
“All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? It turns out that they don’t have all the answers,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.”
The idea of Obama giving a national commencement speech provoked a social media clamor in April when a Los Angeles high school student, Eagle Rock High senior Lincoln Debenham, took to Twitter to petition the former president.
“Like most high school/college seniors, I’m saddened by the loss of milestone events, prom & graduation. In an unprecedented time, it would give us great comfort to hear your voice,” he tweeted at Obama, and drew 226,000 likes and more than 46,000 retweets.
An Obama aide said Saturday that the former president was “aware of and flattered by the viral campaign,” but that his commencement plans were made in response to a broader “deluge of requests from institutions, school systems and other organizations.”
“Given the unprecedented situation graduates are facing, the president wanted to send inspirational messages to them directly across several platforms,” the Obama aide said.
A third event is slated for June 6, when Obama and his wife, Michelle, will participate in a star-studded graduation celebration via YouTube. Other participants in the eclectic lineup include Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani women’s education activist who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
In his speech to black college and university graduates, Obama did not mention Trump. But he urged graduates to assert leadership now that politics and the economy have been upended by the pandemic.
“With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative,” he said. “Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore, ‘This is how it’s always been done.'”
He warned his audience against efforts to divide them against others seeking change.
“On the big unfinished goals in this country, like economic and environmental justice and healthcare for everybody, broad majorities agree on the ends,” he said. “That’s why folks with power will keep trying to divide you over the means.”
Obama began stepping up his profile in 2020 politics when, after refusing to back any of the many candidates for president, he endorsed Biden once the former vice president had effectively beaten all his primary opponents.
Obama, like the presidents before him, has mostly steered clear of directly attacking his successor, although he did criticize Trump and his policies as he campaigned for Democrats in the 2018 midterm election.
Obama’s recent critique of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis came in a videoconference with 3,000 former aides, a private speech that he doubtless knew would leak. He said the pandemic response had become “an absolute chaotic disaster when that mind-set of ‘what’s in it for me?’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mind-set is operationalized in our government.”
Obama also criticized the Justice Department for asking a judge to drop charges against Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
“Our basic understanding of the rule of law is at risk,” Obama said.
Trump, meanwhile, stepped up his attacks on Obama, advancing a conspiracy theory about efforts to block his 2016 election that he dubbed “Obamagate.” Trump has tried to portray Flynn — and himself — as victims of a “deep state” conspiracy involving a tangled cast of perceived enemies from the Obama administration.
And Trump has tried to link Biden to the alleged plot. The former vice president’s campaign dismissed these attacks as a crackpot political ploy to distract from the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.