Former President Barack Obama called for sweeping changes to voting laws on Thursday, including making Election Day a national holiday and implementing automatic voter registration, and he embraced eliminating the filibuster if necessary to enact those changes, calling the legislative tool a “Jim Crow relic.”
In a 40-minute speech eulogizing Representative John Lewis, Mr. Obama drew parallels between the police violence that Mr. Lewis endured as a civil-rights leader in the 1960s and the recent wave of racial-justice protests and police clashes that have spread across the nation.
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” Mr. Obama said, speaking from the same pulpit once used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
The speech was the latest and most public example of how Mr. Obama, who had sought to avoid the political scrum early in his post-presidency, has turned his focus to the 2020 election with greater intensity, even as he races to finish writing a book. He helped bring about a swifter end to the Democratic primary; has raised more than $24 million since June for his former vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee; and has lent his name to the party’s and Mr. Biden’s digital fund-raising and organizing efforts.
Mr. Obama lacerated his successor, though not by name, criticizing President Trump’s efforts to discourage voting, his push to undermine trust in critical election institutions and his administration’s actions against peaceful protesters. In recent private chats with Democratic donors, Mr. Obama has hit Mr. Trump more directly, accusing him of campaigning by stirring up “nativist, racist, sexist” resentments, but his likening him to Wallace represented a newly aggressive public posture.
On Thursday, he reserved some of his strongest words for his defense of voting rights, which Mr. Lewis promoted throughout his career in Congress and as a civil-rights leader.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot,” Mr. Obama said, “but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision — even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”
Mr. Obama said that former inmates should have their voting rights restored, that the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico should have “equal representation in our government” (“they’re Americans,” he said) and that the Voting Rights Act must be renewed.
“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he declared.
That is further than Mr. Biden has gone — though Mr. Biden, who served in the Senate for decades and is an avowed institutionalist, has increasingly opened the door to eliminating the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass legislation instead of a simple majority of 51.
Since Mr. Lewis’s death on July 17, many of his supporters have called on Congress to pass legislation updating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Supreme Court severely weakened in 2013. The Democratic-controlled House did so last year, but Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has not allowed the Republican-controlled Senate to take it up.
“Want to honor John?” Mr. Obama said. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute — but John wouldn’t want us to stop there, just trying to get back to where we already were.” He called specifically for adding more polling places and early voting options, automatic voter registration and a national election holiday.
He called Mr. Lewis “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance” and vividly laid out the stakes of the 2020 contest, framing it as a part of Mr. Lewis’s legacy.
“Democracy isn’t automatic,” Mr. Obama said. “It has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy — not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a bighearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America — then we’re going to have to be more like John.”
It was a deeply political speech in a rare public appearance from the former president during the ongoing pandemic. But as the election nears, advisers to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden know well that the former president represents one of the most powerful voices in the Democratic Party to mobilize voters, and Mr. Obama seems ready to engage more fully than he has since he left office.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama addressed his decision to talk politics at a moment of mourning and remembrance.
“I know this is a celebration of John’s life,” he said. “There are some who might say, ‘You shouldn’t dwell on such things.’ But that’s why I’m talking about it. John Lewis devoted his time on this earth to fighting the very attempts on democracy and what’s best in America. That we’re seeing circulate right now.”
Mr. Obama was one of three former presidents to memorialize Mr. Lewis, with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton preceding him. Mr. Trump stayed at the White House.