Barack Obama isn’t talking about hope and change anymore. During his DNC speech Wednesday night, the former president laid out a stark warning about the threat Donald Trump poses to American democracy and society.
Watch former President Barack Obama's speech for the Democratic National Convention. "Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy," he said.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 20, 2020
Obama’s speech was powerful because he’s a uniquely gifted speechmaker, and this speech was arguably the most powerful of his career. He was careful to mention American democracy’s failures, including its exclusions of women and Black people, while weaving the sentiments of the current moment with his warning of world-ending fascist takeover. Even in the empty halls of Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, his words hit with as much weight as his pensive moments of silence. Watching him speak, you could feel the mounting pressure and power of the moment—an effect heightened by clever directing.
Something you maybe didn't notice because it happened over the course of 20 minutes: the camera slowly zooming in on Obama, enhancing the effect that he was speaking directly to you about something of grave importance. pic.twitter.com/4uGZlMQNnm
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) August 20, 2020
Obama recognized recent racial equality protests and offered some semblance of hope, but his overarching tone of despair and caution were clear. It’s the tune he tried playing four years ago, albeit fair more quietly and still tied to antiquated notions of what a president should and shouldn’t do on the campaign trail. Obama was reticent to speak out—either fearing his words might not pack the same punch or that doing so would signal some dereliction of duty. Divorced from his eight years in power, Obama’s proverbial gloves are off, even if his impact is limited without in-person campaigning.
Is it too little too late? Maybe. The democratic institutions that Obama warns are now “threatened like never before” have been for most of Trump’s first term. None of the racism or hatred he’s fomenting now is new. Obama’s supposed open mindedness about Trump’s ability to do the job early on—echoed by Hillary Clinton—was either disingenuous or entirely misplaced. Maybe the former president’s words last night would’ve meant less if he’d been openly degrading Trump for the past several years, but it’s hard to imagine anyone would be worse for wear if he had.
Either way, Obama’s speech was a stark cap to a night on which Democrats tried exorcising their 2016 demons—or at the very least remind everyone of them. Hillary Clinton spoke, wearing all white as she did the night she accepted the 2016 Democratic nomination, warning of Trump’s ability to win even if he loses by several million votes. It’s no accident she appeared toward the end of the 9 o’clock hour before national networks picked up coverage.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke from a daycare center classroom about the integral importance of child care in America, complete with lettered blocks spelling out “BLM” in the cubbies behind her. Infantilizing as it was, it matched the senator’s enthusiasm for Biden’s proposed child care plan—one far less robust than her own. Montages on gun violence, women’s empowerment, and focus on Biden’s authorship of the Violence Against Women Act played directly to the more secure Democratic base—leading rather seamlessly into Kamala Harris accepting the vice presidential nomination without mentioning Trump once.
Yet it all comes back to Obama, as it usually does. He’s the Democratic Party kingmaker, the de facto producer of this virtual shindig, and the person with as much at stake as anyone (at least politically). Trump’s election was a repudiation of Obama and a fresh reminder of what the broken politics and mostly empty messaging of his era brought the United States. Trump’s re-election would signal the full scale destruction of whatever legacy Obama has left—and likely American democracy itself.