Neither of them mentioned President Trump by name but two of his predecessors emerged from political seclusion on Thursday to deliver what sounded like pointed rebukes of the current occupant of the Oval Office and the forces of division that propelled him to power.
In separate and unrelated appearances, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both warned that the United States was being torn apart by ancient hatreds that should have been consigned to history long ago and called for addressing economic anxiety through common purpose. While not directly addressing Mr. Trump, neither left much doubt whom and what they had in mind.
Mr. Bush, the last Republican to hold the White House, spoke out at a conference he convened in New York to support democracy, noting that America first had to “recover our own identity” in the face of challenges to its most basic ideals. While Mr. Trump seeks to raise barriers to trade and newcomers, lashing out at targets with relish, Mr. Bush defended immigration and free trade, denounced nationalism and bigotry and bemoaned what he called the “casual cruelty” of current public discourse.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Mr. Bush said. “We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism. We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.”
Mr. Obama was more circumspect, returning to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office to support Democrats running for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. His speeches were mostly get-out-the-vote pleas, but he defended his record on health care at a time when Mr. Trump has been trying to dismantle it, and he, too, pointed to the social, economic and racial schisms cleaving American society.
“What we can’t have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before that dates back centuries,” Mr. Obama told a campaign rally for Philip D. Murphy in Newark. “Some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. That has folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st century, not the 19th century. Come on!”
Later, in the Virginia state capital of Richmond, he seemed to respond to Mr. Trump’s claim this week that Mr. Obama had not shown interest in the families of troops killed in combat. He did so by invoking the candidate Ralph S. Northam’s work as an Army doctor caring for veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“I can tell you as somebody who visited Walter Reed consistently throughout my eight years what it meant to have a medical staff that was literally helping to rebuild people’s lives,” Mr. Obama said.
Both former presidents have largely avoided taking on Mr. Trump since he was inaugurated in January, aside from occasional statements or comments in interviews. But the sight of the two most recent presidents back on the public stage on the same day, however coincidental, reinforced the broader alarm among establishment leaders of both parties.