Barack Obama, the man of hope and change, had a different sort of message for Americans last night: Vote or our democracy may die.
The former president spoke in primetime Wednesday night at the virtual Democratic National Convention, delivering his remarks from Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution. He spent some of his speech talking up why he believes Joe Biden, the vice president in his administration who is now the Democratic presidential nominee, is fit to lead the country.
But the heart of Obama’s speech was an indictment of Republican President Donald Trump, and it wasn’t about Trump’s policy choices. It was about Trump’s basic fitness for office ― or, more precisely, his lack of fitness for office ― and the danger it posed to American democracy.
“I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies,” Obama said. “I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did.”
“And the consequences of that failure are severe,” Obama said, proceeding to list the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken in the nation. “170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever.”
More broadly, he continued, the nation under Trump has seen “our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
It’s not as if others haven’t similarly lambasted Trump. But it was unsettling to hear the indictment coming from the persistently optimistic Obama, who so famously believes in the fundamental decency of most elected officials, the power of reason to prevail over passion, and the basic wisdom of the American people.
Those beliefs were the themes of his first address to a Democratic national convention, back in 2004, when as a young, skinny, little-known U.S. Senate candidate bouncing on the stage, he gave a keynote address about unity amid political divisions. That same faith in unity and common purpose were also cornerstones of his 2008 White House campaign and the animating spirit of his presidency ― even at the most difficult times when he was facing intractable, irrational or uncivil opposition.
Obama on Thursday night still looked skinny. And if the gray hairs told of his age ― now 59 ― he still had some bounce as he spoke. There were even moments when he smiled, especially when he was reminiscing about his work alongside Biden during their two-term White House tenure.
The commander-in-chief doesn’t use the men and women of our military, who are willing to risk everything to protect our nation, as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil. Barack Obama, critiquing Donald Trump
But during the most powerful parts of the speech ― at the beginning, when he detailed his indictment of Trump, and in the last third, when he pleaded with voters to reclaim American democracy ― Obama looked gravely serious and maybe even distressed. It was as if he was still grappling with how Trump ever became president and, then, how anybody in the Oval Office could govern with such disregard for the public interest.
“The commander-in-chief doesn’t use the men and women of our military, who are willing to risk everything to protect our nation, as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil,” Obama said. “Political opponents aren’t ‘un-American’ just because they disagree with you ... A free press isn’t the ‘enemy,’ but the way we hold officials accountable … Our ability to work together to solve big problems like a pandemic depends on a fidelity to facts and science and logic, and not just making stuff up.”
“None of this should be controversial. These shouldn’t be Republican principles or Democratic principles. They’re American principles,” he said, echoing the most memorable line from his 2004 address. “But at this moment, this president and those who enable him have shown they don’t believe in these things.”
And in a reference to efforts at voter suppression, whether through sabotage of the mail system or limiting ballot access, Obama said: “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win.”
Obama did reach for inspiration at the very end of his speech, recalling the spirit of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other activists in U.S. history who fought to expand the rights of workers, immigrants, people of different faiths and underrepresented minorities.
“If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans,” Obama said. “And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, someway, we are going to make this work.”
Obama said that now, he’s seen the wellsprings of similar activism on behalf of new causes, from protecting the planet to ending gun violence ― two of the great unfinished causes of his own presidency. “But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election,” he warned. “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
He closed with the familiar sign-off of the COVID-19 era, “stay safe” ― a warning about personal well-being, but perhaps also the health of American democracy.