Obama urges students to vote, addresses current issues


Bercham Kamber

Former President Barack Obama speaks to students, faculty and community members during his acceptance of the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government on Friday in Foellinger Auditorium.

By Karen Liu and Gillian Dunlop, News Editor and Managing Editor for Reporting

Former President Barack Obama urged students to vote in the upcoming midterm elections during his speech on Friday at Foellinger Auditorium.

Obama came to the University to accept the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government.

“As a citizen, I am here to deliver a simple message and that is you need to vote because our democracy depends on it,” he said.

Obama took the stage at 11:05 a.m., after being introduced by Amaury Saulsberry, senior in FAA and winner of the Illinois Promise scholarship, which is given to high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. Obama engaged the crowd by chanting “I-L-L” and said it was good to be home.

He also addressed “the elephant in the room,” speaking about his choice to decline the invitation to be the commencement speaker at the University in 2017.

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I know people are still wondering why I didn’t speak at the 2017 commencement,” he said. “The truth is after eight years in the White House, I wanted to spend some time … with Michelle, if I wanted to stay married.”

The former president then addressed serious issues relating to the current administration.

A glance at recent headlines should tell you this moment really is different,” he said. “The consequences of us sitting on the sidelines are dire.” 

Obama talked about the widening division in the country between different belief systems, but noted these issues existed before current President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

“He is a symptom, not a cause,” Obama said.

Obama addressed the students directly by remarking that the younger generation has the power to make a difference in society by participating in all elections, both local and national, regardless of political affiliation.

“You can be the generation that, at a critical moment, stood up,” he said. “I believe in you.”

Audrey Dombro, junior in ACES and president of Illini Democrats, said hearing the speech and hearing how students can make a difference puts things in perspective, and she said she hopes it encourages students to vote.

“Since President Trump was elected I think Obama has been a little bit more vague about his criticisms, but this speech took it full force,” she said. “He called a lot of people and attitudes out, which was extremely valuable, especially in this college campus area where our voter turnout makes such a huge difference.”

Nikolay Penchev, senior in LAS, was one of the 944 students across the University System who got a ticket to see the speech in person. He said Obama is one of the greatest speakers alive right now and any chance to listen to someone like that speak is always a good time.

“I was really lucky to get a pretty good seat, it was pretty close to the front. People always say when you’re around powerful figures, they kind of radiate this aura, they kind of command your respect and I think that was definitely the case in Foellinger today,” Penchev said. “No matter where you were sitting, he just radiates confidence.”

Penchev said he feels he grew up with Obama, as he was around 11 years old when Obama was first elected in 2008.

“I definitely felt like I need to listen to what this man is saying,” he said. “I definitely am going to go out and vote, because if Obama tells you to vote, you gotta vote.”

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Editor’s note: Therese Pokorney contributed to the report. Illini Republicans did not respond for comments at the time of publication.