The virus has “torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” the former president said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
Without the springtime rituals of traditional graduation ceremonies, former President Barack Obama delivered a virtual commencement address on Saturday, urging thousands of graduates at historically black colleges and universities “to seize the initiative” at a time when he says the nation’s leaders have fumbled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The speech combined the inspirational advice given to graduates with pointed criticism of the handling of a public health crisis that has killed more than 87,000 Americans and crippled much of the economy.
“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 in an address streamed online. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
It was one of his few public addresses to a national audience during the outbreak, and he said a leadership void had created a clear mandate for the graduates: “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s remarks were billed as a commencement speech, but they also appeared to be an effort to comfort and assure an American public divided by President Trump’s handling of the crisis. The former president also used the moment to attempt to rally the nation in an election year around values historically championed by Democrats like universal health care, and environmental and economic justice.
Since leaving office three years ago, Mr. Obama generally has avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Trump. But his jabs at the pandemic response could further inflame tensions between the two most recent occupants of the White House.
Mr. Obama called the current administration’s response to the pandemic “anemic and spotty” in a private call last week with thousands of supporters who had worked for him.
“It would have been bad even with the best of governments,” Mr. Obama said on the call. “It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mind-set — of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mind-set is operationalized in our government.”
And in recent days Mr. Trump has unleashed tirades against Mr. Obama on Twitter and on television, resurrecting unfounded claims that his predecessor tried to bring him down by manufacturing the Russia investigation.
Mr. Obama’s address to more than 27,000 students at 78 participating historically black colleges and universities was the first of two commencement speeches by the former president on Saturday.
He is also scheduled to have remarks air during a prime time special for high school graduates that starts at 8 p.m. Eastern on the major television networks. That event, “Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020 Commencement,” is organized by XQ Institute, a think tank that works with schools, in partnership with LeBron James’s foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a philanthropic organization.
The two-hour event for historically black schools, “Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition,” was streamed on the social media platforms of its corporate sponsor, JPMorgan Chase. It featured Kevin Hart as host as well as dozens of prominent African-American athletes, politicians and entertainers, many of whom were H.B.C.U. graduates.