Without mentioning President Trump by name, former president Barack Obama delivered a pointed rebuke of “strongman politics” on Tuesday, warning about growing nationalism, xenophobia, and bigotry in the United States and around the world, while offering a full-throated defense of democracy, diversity, and the liberal international order.
A day after Trump met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Obama delivered his highest-profile speech since leaving office, at an event in South Africa marking the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.
“Look around,” he said. “Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained, the form of it, but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
Obama opened his nearly 90-minute speech with a nod to current events, saying that times were “strange and uncertain” and that “each day’s news cycle is bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines.” He said that leaders embracing the “politics of fear, resentment, and retrenchment” were undermining the international system established after World War II.
“That kind of politics is now on the move,” Obama told a crowd of thousands at a stadium in Johannesburg. “It’s on a move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I’m not being alarmist; I’m simply stating the facts.”
Just the day before, Trump had stood next to Putin in Helsinki and disputed his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow, at the behest of Putin, interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump said he believed Putin’s denial, drawing widespread condemnation, even from some members of his own party.
Obama seemed to take direct aim at Trump over his administration’s policies and his propensity for exaggerations and falsehoods. He said he was stunned how the notion of objective truth was now up for debate and how politicians make up facts and stand by baseless claims even after they are proved wrong.
“We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more,” he said. “Look, let me say: Politicians have always lied, but it used to be that if you caught them lying, they’d be like, ‘Ah, man.’ ”
He also addressed growing anti-immigration policies in the United States and Europe. In the United States, Trump ordered a ban on travel to the country from several predominantly Muslim countries. His administration also enforced the former policy of separating immigrant children from parents who cross illegally into the United States.
While it is “not wrong” to want to protect the country’s borders or expect that immigrants assimilate, Obama said, it “cannot be an excuse for immigration policies based on race or ethnicity or religion.”
“We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life,” he said. “For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.”
Throughout the speech, Obama returned to the ideals promoted by Mandela, the anti-apartheid South African leader, saying that his release from prison in 1990 inspired a wave of racial and gender equality and economic progress nearly everywhere. Countries were lifted out of poverty. Entrepreneurs surfaced from all parts of the world.
But the financial collapse of 2008, Obama said, ushered in severe economic hardship, lost wages, and unemployment that led many people to question how drastically the world had changed with globalization and technology. They became wary of immigration and denounced powerful elites in both politics and places like financial institutions, he said.
The ideals promoted by Mandela are now at risk, he added.
“On Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads,” Obama said, using Mandela’s clan name, a term of affection in South Africa for him. “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. Two different stories, two different narratives, about who we are and who we should be.”
Countries like Russia and China are trying to take advantage of the moment of uncertainty, he said. Asserting its growing economic prowess, China challenges criticisms of its human rights record. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is trying to rebuild its regional and international influence.
“Within the United States and within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcibly from the right,” Obama said. “These movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside the urban cores, fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody who didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”
After a stop over the weekend in Kenya, his father’s home country, Obama traveled to South Africa to deliver the keynote address at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. He joked about how Mandela’s widow Graça Machel had invited him — “I was ordered in a very nice way to be here,” he said — and said he had forgotten that it was winter this time of year in South Africa.
“I didn’t bring a coat and this morning, I had to send someone out to the mall because I’m wearing long johns,” Obama said, adding: “I was born in Hawaii.”