President Obama inspires Class of 2020, adroitly criticizes current leaders for mishandling pandemic crisis

Free Press staff, wire reports | 5/21/2020, 6 p.m.
Hours after former President Obama delivered two measured and inspiring na- tional commencement speeches to the Class of 2020 college ...
Former President Obama

WASHINGTON - Hours after former President Obama delivered two measured and inspiring national commencement speeches to the Class of 2020 college and high school graduates last Saturday, social media lit up with comments of “Great speech, Mr. Obama.

We miss you!” and “That’s what a president should be like. November 2020 can’t get here soon enough.”

People praised the 44th president for his poise, leadership and statesmanship, drawing comparisons to the current occupant of the White House, who petulantly criticized Mr. Obama as “grossly incompetent” when he was asked Sunday by reporters if he’d tuned into Mr. Obama’s speech that was carried live on most major television and cable news networks.

Without calling President Trump’s name, Mr. Obama on Saturday criticized U.S. leaders overseeing the nation’s response to the coronavirus crisis, telling college graduates in an online commencement address that the pandemic shows many officials “aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Mr. Obama spoke Saturday afternoon on “Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition,” a two-hour event for students graduating from historically black colleges and universities broadcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. His remarks were unexpectedly political, given the venue, and touched on current events beyond the virus and its social and economic impacts.

“More than anything, 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,” Mr. Obama said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Later on Saturday evening, during a second televised commencement address for high school seniors, Mr. Obama panned “so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs” who do “what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy.”

“Which is why things are so screwed up,” he said.

Mr. Obama did not name President Trump or any other federal or state officials in either of his appearances. But earlier this month, he harshly criticized President Trump’s handling of the pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster” in a call with 3,000 members of his former administration.

The commencement remarks were the latest sign that Mr. Obama intends to play an increasingly active role in the upcoming election. He has generally kept a low profile in the years since he left office, even as President Trump has disparaged him. Mr. Obama told supporters on the telephone call that he would be “spending as much time as necessary and campaigning as hard as I can” for Joe Biden, who served as his vice president.

As he congratulated the college graduates Saturday and commiserated over the enormous challenges they face given the devastation and economic turmoil the virus has wrought, the former president noted the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was killed while jogging just blocks from his home 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,” Mr. 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.”

“Injustice like this isn’t new,” Mr. Obama went on to say. “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.”

In the face of a void in leader- ship, he said, it would be up to the graduates to shape the future.

“If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said.

It is a perilous time for HBCUs across the nation that have long struggled with less funding and smaller endowments than their predominantly white peers and are now dealing with the financial

challenges of the coronavirus. Even at the better-endowed HBCUs, officials are bracing for a tough few years.

Mr. Obama’s message to high school students came at the end of an hourlong television special featuring celebrities, including LeBron James, Alicia Keys, Yara Shahidi and Ben Platt, and was less sharp-edged than his speech to the college graduates. He urged the young graduates to be unafraid despite the current challenges facing the nation and to strive to be part of a diverse community.

“Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path,” Mr. Obama said.