In Johannesburg, South Africa, as he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on Tuesday, the former president began by saying, “Given the strange and uncertain times that we are in — and they are strange, and they are uncertain; each day’s news cycles bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective.”
“We see much of the world threatening to return to a more dangerous, more brutal, way of doing business,” he continued.
While Obama didn’t mention Trump by name in the speech, the former president went on to decry “strongman politics,” and said that “those in power seek to undermine every institution … that gives democracy meaning.”
Obama also criticized politicians pushing the “politics of fear, resentment, retrenchment,” saying they are working “at a pace unimaginable just a few years ago.”
Obama’s speech comes as Trump faces overwhelming criticism over his comments during a press conference Monday following his meeting with Putin.
Trump stunned liberals and conservatives by disregarding the American intelligence community’s findings and accepting Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 American election.
“I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish,” Trump said. “And I think we’re all to blame.”
The Associated Press reported that John Stremlau, a professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said that “Just by standing on the stage honouring Nelson Mandela, Obama is delivering an eloquent rebuke to Trump.”
“Yesterday we had Trump and Putin standing together, now we are seeing the opposing team: Obama and Mandela,” Stremlau said.
During his speech, given in honor of Mandela’s 100th birthday, Obama also discussed the legacy of the anti-apartheid hero who died in 2013.
“He came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world with hopes for a better life and the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs,” Obama said.
Obama has made unspecific criticisms of Trump in the past. After Trump’s “both sides” response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Obama tweeted a Mandela quote that began, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”
In October, Obama said, “If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you’re not going to be able to govern them. You won’t be able to unite them later if that’s how you start.”
“All of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet,” he said. “One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.”
Privately, Obama has been less restrained. Describing his election night 2016 phone call with Trump, in which the businessman suddenly professed his “respect” and “admiration” for Obama after years of racist hectoring, Obama told two friends in November: “He’s nothing but a bullsh–ter.”