Barack Obama warns against complacency, invokes specter of Nazi Germany

The notoriously optimistic ex-president isn't known for making extreme analogies, making his comment surprising

By Nicole Karlis

Published December 8, 2017 6:30PM (EST)

 (Getty/Scott Olson)
(Getty/Scott Olson)

Barack Obama made a public appearance on Tuesday at the Economic Club of Chicago, a members-only organization in Chicago which focuses on improving economic and social issues. A video of his discussion surfaced on Facebook, and viewers seized on his comments warning about the dangers of complacency in democracy.

When asked by the moderator about how "what it means to be an American" has evolved, and how to deal with competing narratives of this within the United States, Obama explained:

"I do think because we’ve been so wealthy and so successful that we get complacent. We assume things continue the way they have been just automatically, and they don’t. You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise, things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we've seen societies where that happens. Now, presume there was a ballroom here in Vienna in the late 1920s or '30s that looked and seemed as if it, filled with the music and art and literature that was emerging, would continue into perpetuity. And then 60 million people died. An entire world was plunged into chaos. So you got to pay attention -- and vote."

During the same discussion, Obama reiterated the importance of not taking American values for granted — specifically, values like freedom of the press. The former president emphasized that even if he didn't agree with news reports while he was president, he understood the values and importance of the principle.

“Timeless values should transcend parties. I’d argue that freedom of the press should be ideal,” he said. “What I understood was that principle that the free press was vital. As president, part of my job was to make sure that that was maintained.”

In the video, Obama didn’t specifically criticize or mention his successor, but it seems clear he is referencing current President Donald Trump. Trump has been consistently engaged in a war against the media, and seems not to understand free speech. Professor and cultural critic Henry Giroux has called Trump's behavior an "attack on democracy." 

The notoriously soft-spoken ex-president is known for being extremely careful with his words. Throughout his presidency, he took an optimistic tone of the future, even during dark times or when he struggled to get his policy agenda through. Likewise, Obama was often hesitant to issue harsh critique, even of his opponents, and was not known for making analogies to Nazi Germany, a rhetorical tactic that often backfires and which is viewed by many as often offensive. Notably, Obama did not directly say the word "Nazi," "Germany," "Hitler" nor "World War II," but chose to reference World War II indirectly.

On a lighter note: In another highlight of the night, Obama was asked to pick his favorite between Michael Jackson and Prince. Obama reportedly chose Prince.

Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Barack Obama Democracy Economic Club Of Chicago Nazi Germany Rhetoric