Obama warns against strongman politics in these ‘strange times’

Former US president delivers pointed rebuke of Donald Trump without mentioning him by name

Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, former US president Barack Obama delivered a pointed rebuke of his successor on Tuesday, warning about growing nationalism, xenophobia and bigotry in the United States and around the world, while offering a full-throated defence of democracy, diversity and the liberal international order.

In his highest-profile speech since leaving office, delivered in South Africa at an event marking the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth, Mr Obama cautioned that "strongman politics" posed a serious threat to democratic norms, institutions and values. He called for people to embrace the ideas of human rights and equality.

“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.”

Mr 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 leaders embracing the “politics of fear, resentment and retrenchment” were undermining the international system established after the second World War.


"That kind of politics is now on the move," Mr 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."

The day before Mr Obama's speech, Mr Trump stood next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and disputed his own intelligence agencies' conclusion that Moscow, at the behest of Mr Putin, interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. Mr Trump said he believed Mr Putin's denial, earning widespread condemnation, even from some members of his own party.

Throughout the speech, Mr 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, Mr Obama said, ushered in severe economic hardship, lost wages and unemployment that led many people to question how drastically the world had changed with globalisation 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,” Mr 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.” – New York Times