Former President Barack Obama on Tuesday laid out a progressive vision for the future in direct rebuke to what he called the “politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment” that have taken hold around the world.
In remarks honoring the 100th anniversary of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela’s birth, delivered in South Africa a day after President Donald Trump was roundly criticized for cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama denounced creeping authoritarianism and warned against “strongman politics” practiced by leaders who ignore facts and “seek to undermine every institution … that gives democracy meaning.”
“We now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, more dangerous, more brutal way of doing business,” he said in his highest-profile speech since leaving office.
It is a “moment in time in which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of citizens around the world,” he added.
Framing his remarks as a reflection on Mandela’s legacy “given the strange and uncertain times that we are in,” Obama offered a rebuttal to Trump policies, such as separating migrant families at the southern U.S. border, and postures, all without mentioning the president by name.
Obama acknowledged that technology and globalization have resulted in feelings of insecurity, joblessness, and the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few. But, he said, that is why democratic societies must work harder to counter the political forces that would exploit grievance and stoke “barely hidden racial nationalism.”
At one point, he invoked the World Cup-winning French soccer team, which counts the children of immigrants among its members, and warned that countries that engage in xenophobia “eventually … find themselves consumed by civil war.”
“We are stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving. The only way to effectively address problems like climate change, or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop more systems for international cooperation, not less,” he said in what appeared to be a direct rebuke of Trump’s recent criticism of NATO allies and his naming of the European Union as a “foe.”
He lamented the idea that he still had to “stand here at a lecture and devote some time to saying “that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human.”
“I would have thought we would have figured that out by now,” he added.
He then appeared to depart from his prepared remarks, saying, to laughter and cheers, “Don’t you get a sense — again, I’m ad-libbing here, that these people who are so intent on putting people down and pumping themselves up that they’re small-hearted? That there’s something they’re afraid of?”
He also lashed out at those who “reject objective truth,” saying that the denial of facts could be the undoing of democracy.
“Too much of politics today seems to reject the concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up,” he said.
The speech came on the heels of Trump’s heavily criticized press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Finland on Monday where he contradicted the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help him win.
Since leaving office, Obama has shied away from commenting publicly on his successor, preferring to promote a message of equality and unity on Twitter and elsewhere. After Trump’s comments on the violent white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, caused outcry last summer, Obama tweeted a photo of himself, greeting a group of small children of various ethnicities, along with partial quote from Mandela.
Obama has long spoken of how Mandela inspired him to take up a life of service and community activism.
When Obama was a U.S. senator, he had his picture taken with the newly freed Mandela. After Obama became president he sent a copy of the photo to Mandela, who kept it in his office.
Five years ago, Obama gave a moving eulogy at Mandela’s memorial service, calling him “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”