It has long been a tradition of ex-presidents, following the example of George Washington, to leave office for a quiet retirement in the background of public life.
“The point Washington made,” Obama said, speaking from a stage in rural Illinois, “is that it’s essential to American democracy that in a government of and by and for the people, there should be no permanent ruling class.”
Indeed, days before he left office in 2016, Obama told reporters, “I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much. “
But today, the former president made clear the consequences of being quiet –- of polite presidential deference -- have become too “dire.”
“I'm here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who it is that we are,” Obama said.
For months, the 44th president has been a model of patience and restraint under a barrage of criticism and attacks –- sometimes personal and unfounded -– launched by the man who succeeded him. Aides close to Obama have said he has bit his lip, wanting to avoid an ugly tit-for-tat and to stay above the fray.
Now, as 2018 midterm campaign season gets underway, it’s likely a very public Trump-versus-Obama showdown becomes a defining storyline of the year.
"Demagogues promise simple fixes for big problems," Obama said, swiping at Trump. "They promise to clean up corruption then plunder away."
For the first time in a public speech leaving office, Obama publicly said the words, “Donald Trump” -– twice, though he made no mention of his title as the nation's president.
And Obama went on from there, calling Trump out over “cozying up to Putin,” for not standing up to “Nazi sympathizers,” for attacking the press, for directing his own Justice Department to show political deference, and for costing us “honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.”
In many ways, Obama spoke beyond Trump -- calling him the "symptom not the cause" of a broader crisis in American democracy – indicting the Republican Party for what he described as timidity in failing to reject the politics of conspiracy theories and resentments.
"It's not conservative," Obama said. "It isn't normal. It's radical."
Donald Trump seemed to respond to it all with a shrug. On the stump in North Dakota, the 45th president mocked his predecessor’s speech.
“I watched it, but I fell asleep," Trump claimed. "I found he's very good. Very good for sleeping.”
By that measure, Trump could be in store for a lot of “good sleep” this fall.
Obama plans to hit the campaign trail for Democratic candidates in competitive races all across the country through October, appearing first in California on Saturday and Ohio next week.
“If you don't like what's going on right now, and you shouldn't -- do not -- complain,” Obama said. “Don't lose yourself in ironic detachment. Don't put your head in the sand. Vote.”