(CBS News) — Former President Barack Obama urged Americans to vote this November in a speech on the “state of our democracy” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus Friday that will set his tone ahead of the midterm elections.

The former commander-in-chief made the case that now is a pivotal moment in history in which Americans need to push back against those who would encourage the worst in human nature and appeal to anger, fear and resentment. Obama, who is receiving the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government, lauded the importance of bipartisanship and a belief in principles of equality and decency over division.

The greatest threat to American democracy, the former president said, is not Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress, the Koch brothers, too much compromise from Democrats, or Russian hacking — the biggest threat to American democracy is cynicism.

“As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president but as a citizen, I’m here to deliver simple message and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it,” Obama said.

“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different,” he added. “The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”

Obama discussed key moments in American history — and the character that he believes made this nation strong. Ordinary people, Obama said, fought, marched and voted for equality, rather than being “bystanders” to history.

“That’s the story of America,” he said. “A story of progress.”

But that progress, Obama noted, has not been a straight line — sometimes, it’s two steps forward, one step back. And each time there is progress, someone incites backlash, he said.

“Of course, there’s always been another darker aspect to America’s story,” he said. “Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line.”

Obama said his successor is a “symptom,” not the cause of the tribal divisions existing in today’s political environment.

“It did not start with Donald Trump,” Obama said. “He is a symptom, not the cause.”

“He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years,” Obama said, claiming Mr. Trump capitalized on a fear and anger that is rooted in the nation’s past but also rooted in upheavals in the nation in recent years.

Obama is expected to hit the campaign trail running for Democrats this fall, as his party looks to take control of the House from Republicans hands. He’s expected to hold a rally with Ohio gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray Thursday, and with seven Democratic House candidates in California Saturday. The former president is also slated to campaign in Illinois and September later this month, and will headline a fundraiser for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in New York City. Obama, who has already issued a list of 81 endorsements, is expected to issue a second round of them ahead of the midterms.

The Republican National Committee, responding to Obama’s speech, said voters will reject Obama’s strategy in 2018.

“In 2016, voters rejected President Obama’s policies and his dismissiveness towards half the country. Doubling down on that strategy won’t work in 2018 either,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said in a statement.

Obama is scheduled to speak at the Anaheim Convention Center Saturday at a rally in support of seven Democratic candidates running in competitive House districts across the state. Some of the candidates he will reportedly appear alongside will include Josh Harder, who is running against Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock; T.J. Cox, who is challenging Rep. David Valadao of Hanford; and Katie Hill, who is running for the seat currently occupied by Rep. Steve Knight of Palmdale.

Also attending the rally were Gil Cisneros, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton; Katie Porter, who is running against Rep. Mimi Walters of Laguna Beach; Harley Rouda, who is challenging Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa; and Mike Levin, who hopes to take the seat of retiring Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista.

Tickets were distributed by each candidate to their respective supporters and were not made available to the public.

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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