In doing so, Obama is signaling a willingness to sharply critique his successor, President Donald Trump, and fill what many Democrats see as a national leadership void. On Wednesday, he held a virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
"I want you to know that you matter, I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter," Obama said during the event as a message to the young men and women of color in the United States.
Obama said he's encouraged by how many young people have been galvanized in recent days, saying they historically have been catalysts for progress.
"It makes me feel as if this country's going to get better," he said.
Although the past few weeks have been tragic and difficult, Obama said "it's been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened."
He also had a message to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.
"Please know that Michelle and I grieve with you," Obama said. "We're committed to the fight of creating a more just nation in memory of your sons and daughters."
Obama called for turning the protests over Floyd's death into policy change and urged specific reforms to ensure safer policing and increased trust between communities and law enforcement.
"I've been heartened to see those in law enforcement who've recognized, 'Let me march along with these protesters...I want to be part of the solution,'" he said. "We're grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve."
Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to Obama, said the country is in the political season, but also at an infection point.
"President Obama is not going to shy away from that dialogue simply because he's not in office anymore," Jarrett said.
Obama was already beginning to emerge from political hibernation to endorse Joe Biden's Democratic presidential bid when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the U.S., killing more than 100,000 people, and the economy began to crater. The crises scrambled the Biden campaign's plans for how to begin deploying Obama as their chief surrogate ahead of the November election, but also gave the former president a clear opening to start publicly arguing what he has signaled to friends and associates privately for the past three years: that he does not believe Trump is up for the job.
Addressing graduates of historically black colleges and universities last month, Obama said the pandemic had "fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing." And in a nationally televised broadcast celebrating graduating high school seniors, Obama said many "so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs," do only what's convenient and feels good.
Floyd's death, however, has drawn a more visceral and personal reaction from the nation's first black president. Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
In a lengthy written statement last week, Obama said that while he understood that millions of Americans were eager to "just get back to normal" when the pandemic abates, it shouldn't be forgotten that normal life for people of color in the U.S. involves being treated differently on account of their race.
"This shouldn't be 'normal' in 2020 America. It can't be 'normal,'" Obama wrote.
My statement on the death of George Floyd: pic.twitter.com/Hg1k9JHT6R— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 29, 2020
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Tensions across the country have escalated further in the days since the former president's statement. His town hall on Wednesday will mark his first in-person comments since law enforcement officers aggressively cleared peaceful protesters from a park outside the White House so Trump could walk across for a photo opportunity at a nearby church.
Trump has cheered harsh crackdowns on the protests, some of which have turned violent, and threatened to deploy active-duty military to the states if local officials could not get the demonstrations under control. He appeared to be backing down from that position this week, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he did not believe such action was warranted.
Obama grappled with police brutality against minorities as president, including in Ferguson, Missouri, where clashes broke out after the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old. After Brown's death, Obama's Justice Department moved to enact broad policing reforms, though most were halted under the Trump administration.
Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, called this week for restoring some of the previous administration's actions in the wake of Floyd's death and the killing of other black Americans. Biden also called for Congress to take immediate steps, including outlawing chokeholds.