President Obama gave Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton a valuable gift last night: an endorsement speech that was not, principally or most importantly, about her.
After successive paeans to Clinton, many of them superficial in nature, Obama’s remarks were more than just rest for the weary. They were a necessary intervention. If the election in November becomes as a referendum on Hillary Clinton’s character, even when considered in relation to Trump, Democrats will lose. That’s not because the comparison does not favor her―it does―but because, despite profound reservations, voters will elect Trump if they come to believe he is an agent of change.
To Obama’s credit, he took care to recognize the country’s desire for reform after eight years of his presidency. After enumerating the most significant accomplishments of his administration, the president made clear that more work remained. Although he did not characterize this unfinished business in the same pained terms of alienation that I would, it is nevertheless an uncommon act of magnanimity for a two-term president to survey uncharted political landscape on behalf of his potential successor.
Rather than lay claim to it, Obama furnished the tools that will allow Hillary Clinton to do so: Us Not Me. Through a litany of poignant tales of the sacrifice of ordinary Americans, the president placed people at the center of his narrative, an emphasis and sensibility that has been woefully absent since the convention launched on Monday―and one that, in all candor, the Clinton campaign has been been slow to grasp this entire campaign season.
It is important for the American people to feel recognized and heard within the context of a political campaign―or, I would argue, a political system. This country cannot afford a repeat of the Brexit horror, when too many treated a voting booth as an instrument to punish an elite political class.
For this reason, the president’s neglect of the subject of accountability―a necessary element of legitimacy―was striking to me, and more than a little troubling. The 2008 candidate of whistleblowers has become the president of policing dissent, one who supports a system in which the powerful play by different rules. Voters might indulge their basest instincts when they come to view politics with cynicism; or they may simply be avid and perceptive readers of the news, even that which is gleaned from stolen emails.
If, in November, the majority of voters reach the dangerous conclusion that their political system is a joke, one key reason for that will be that accountability for the powerful was not taken seriously.