Obama, in two speeches, criticizes Trump and challenges grads to grab control
Former President Barack Obama speaks to the class of 2020 on Saturday, May 16. | Obama Foundation

WASHINGTON—Stepping out of what had been a public self-imposed silence on discussing his successor, former President Barack Obama slammed Donald Trump, though not by name, for badly botching the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic—a pandemic, Obama said, that has laid other social ills bare for all to see.

The former generation, including Trump, has produced so much income inequality, unequal health care, and racial injustice, that the grads should grab control of society and fix it, Obama declared.

In successive video speeches on May 16 to hundreds of thousands of high school graduates nationwide, and to 27,000 grads from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, Obama particularly challenged both classes of graduates to remember their fellow human beings, the interdependence of all, and to act accordingly, urging them to reshape U.S. society.

Obama had to speak by video because of the stay-at-home rules and bans on large crowds that limited him to his D.C. residence and eliminated traditional graduation ceremonies around the U.S. Obama joked to grads they probably didn’t miss much, since “not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn’t all that bad.”

President Barack Obama’s HBCU Commencement Speech 2020

President Barack Obama’s Message to America’s High School Graduates

Those grads were treated to a star-studded video special that included Obama, basketball superstar LeBron James (whose foundation assembled and financed the program), U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, and others.

“Even families that are relatively well off, they’re dealing with massive uncertainty,” Obama told the high school seniors. “Those who were struggling before, they’re hanging on by a thread. All of which means that you’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations.

“This pandemic has shaken up the status quo, laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems, from massive economic inequality, to ongoing racial disparities, to a lack of basic healthcare for people who need it. It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work. That it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick.”

That “everyone,” though he did not say so, is disproportionately working-class, Black and brown, female, or combinations thereof.

Obama also reminded the grads that “in our society, democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves but about each other.” Trump’s been faulted for thinking of himself, not the country. Obama was a little gentler but got more critical the longer he spoke.

“You know all those adults that used to think they were in charge or knew what they were doing? Turns out they don’t have all the answers. 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,” Obama said.

“That realization may be kind of intimidating, but I hope it’s also inspiring.”

“With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you, ‘No, you’re too young to understand,’ or ‘This is how it’s always been done.’ Because with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”

Trump’s disastrous response to the pandemic and its spread—including fake cures, blaming China, months of outright denial, and refusal to heed scientific evidence—has led to more than 1.5 million ill people and more than 90,000 dead. Obama laid that at the feet of Trump, too, though not by name.

“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s how kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grownups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way, which is why things are so screwed up.”

“Do what you think is right,” he urged the high school seniors. And Obama continued that same theme with the college grads.

“This pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” he said, again a veiled reference to Trump, who keeps passing the buck to governors and mayors, and blaming the Chinese, while trying to take credit for advances—when they occur—to himself.

The administration’s response was typically Trumpian. In a statement without evidence to back it, his spokeswoman shot back that Trump “has saved lives” during the pandemic.

Obama stuck to the high ground, also unlike Trump.

“I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others,” Obama told the high schoolers. “You won’t get it right every time. You’ll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate to you.”

“And build a community,” he said. “Leave behind all the old ways of thinking, the bias, sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed, and set the world on a different path.” The characteristics he denounced are, again, those features of Trump and his regime.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.