Updated May 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Obama: Pandemic has exposed lack of leadership

Former U.S. President Barack Obama

Former President Obama. Photo: Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Former President Obama took thinly veiled swipes against President Trump and his administration during two virtual commencement speeches on Saturday, although he didn't name him.

Why it matters: Obama's addresses mark the first time he has spoken publicly since the coronavirus outbreak began, and he didn't hold back in either speech.

What he's saying: In his evening commencement speech to graduating high school students, Obama said: "Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately a lot of so-called grownups, including some with fancy titles, important jobs, still think that way, which is why things are so screwed up."

  • In an address to seniors graduating from historically black colleges and universities earlier Saturday, Obama noted "this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many folks in charge know what they're doing." "A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge," he said.
"[A] disease like this just spotlights the underlining inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.
We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our campus. We see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him when he doesn't submit to their question.
Injustice like this isn't new. What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing. That the old ways of doing things don't work. That it doesn't matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry sick. That our society and democracy only works if we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.
... If the world's gonna get better, it's gonna be up to you. ... This is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore that this is how it's always been done. More than ever, this is your moment. ...You're all role models now, whether you like it or not."
— Excerpt from Obama's HBCU commencement speech

The other side: Trump said he hadn't seen Obama's online speeches. "He was an incompetent president — grossly incompetent. That’s all I can say," the president said.

Flashback: Obama recently called the Trump administration’s management of the pandemic an "absolute chaotic disaster," according to a leaked web call with former members of his administration.

  • Trump has launched hundreds of Twitter attacks against Obama in recent days.
  • Most of Trump's tweets were about "Obamagate" — the baseless claim that the Russia investigation was a political hit job ordered by Obama — following the Justice Department's decision to drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
  • Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) declined Trump's call for him to compel Obama to testify before Congress on the Russia investigation.

The state of play: Obama delivered his remote address on Saturday to more than 27,000 graduates from 78 historically black colleges and universities. The first two-hour event, "Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition," was hosted by comedian and actor Kevin Hart.

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Editor's note: This article has been updated with details of Obama's second address.

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