WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Tuesday he was deeply disturbed by the “vulgar and divisive rhetoric” directed at women and minorities as well as the violence in the 2016 presidential campaign, a swipe at Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Without mentioning the Republican candidate by name, Obama used a unity luncheon at the Capitol to express his concern with the political discourse and the protests that have escalated to attacks at the Trump rallies. The candidate has spoken of barring Muslims from entering the country and deporting immigrants living here illegally.
Obama received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his remarks assailing the tenor of the campaign and pleading for civility. Lawmakers from both parties stood and clapped.
“We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities, and Americans that don’t look like us or pray like us or vote like we do,” Obama said.
Obama also called efforts to shut down free speech “misguided.” Protesters forced Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday.
“We live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold. In response to those events we’ve seen actual violence, and we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders,” Obama said, adding that he rejects “any effort to spread fear or encourage violence or shut people down while they are trying to speak.”
He said that while some may bear more of the blame for the climate, everyone bears responsibility for reversing it.
Trump’s political rivals and others blame him for sowing division, rather than unity, across the country. Trump says he’s done no such thing and calls himself a “uniter.”
“It is a cycle that is not an accurate reflection of America. It has to stop,” Obama said. “And I say that not as a matter of political correctness, it’s about the way that corrosive behavior can undermine our democracy, and our society.”
The president reminded the audience of Republicans and Democrats, including the Republican leader of the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, that the world is watching the U.S. candidates and what they say.
“In America there aren’t laws that say we have to be nice to each other. … But there are norms, there are customs, there are values that our parents taught us and that we try to teach to our children,” the president said.
He said people should not be afraid to take their children to a debate or a rally. And he appealed to Ryan, who also spoke at the event. Ryan said earlier Tuesday that all candidates have an obligation to do what they can to provide an atmosphere of harmony at campaign events and not incite violence.
Obama said he appreciated Ryan’s comments. And he said that even though the two men disagree on politics, he would not insult him.
“The point is we can have political debates without turning on one another,” Obama said. “We can disagree without assuming it is motivated by malice.”
Obama spoke at a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon at the Capitol.