Barack Obama came to the Democratic convention not only to praise Hillary Clinton – although he did so lavishly and to great effect – but also to warn what would happen if America somehow chose Donald Trump instead.
He came to make clear that this wasn’t an ordinary election or an ordinary campaign or an ordinary choice or an ordinary anything.
At every convention, we’re told this is the most important election of our lifetimes, and people cheer, and the pundits nod, and then we await the next, even more vital election.
But this time. This time.
This time there’s a Donald Trump and all bets are off. This time, there is no reconciling Barack Obama’s vision of a hopeful America and Donald Trump’s vision of an American dystopia. We can be only one thing or the other, and while Obama made an eloquent case for why Hillary Clinton would be the most qualified person to ever seek the job – more qualified, he would riff to a thrilled Bill Clinton, than either he or Bill could have claimed – there was much more at stake than the prospect of a historic baton pass from the first black president to the first female president.
“Fair to say,” Obama did say, “this is not just a choice between parties or policies; the usual debates between left and right. This is a more fundamental choice – about who we are as a people, and whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government.”
In ordinary times, Obama would have come to the convention to celebrate the unlikely and, yes, audacious trip he’d taken and how it began at another Democratic convention 12 years before.
He began there, but he used it as the setup for a speech not as a valedictory.
All that was at risk, Obama suggested in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America, was the democratic project itself. And also, of course, everything that Obama has stood for and accomplished in his two terms.
And so, Obama was all in. It wasn’t simply personal – that he and Clinton had become unlikely friends or that his relationship with Trump was born in the birther movement. It was this: That morning, in his latest piece of recklessness, Trump had invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Republicans would later try to frame it as a joke, but Trump didn’t mean to be funny. He meant to spark outrage, and he meant to fan the flames of the Trump-Putin bromance and he couldn’t have surprised — or maybe he was — to hear even fellow Republicans toss around words like “treason.”
Obama came to praise his vision of America, “full of courage and optimism and ingenuity … decent and generous.” And to insist that the America he knew could never elect a Donald Trump.
“That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end,” Obama said, framing the danger of a Donald Trump presidency in the starkest of terms, in the darkest of contexts, in words that professorial Obama chose with great care.
“That is America,” he said, and the crowd roared its approval. “That is America. Those bonds of affection, that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it, we embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own. That’s what Hillary Clinton understands — this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot. That’s the America she’s fighting for.”
It was a unity speech, yes, but it wasn’t simply that. It was a shoutout to Bernie supporters, but that was just politics. And, yes, he said, Hillary Clinton had made mistakes, but we had all made mistakes, and she made hers, as Teddy Roosevelt might have said, as the woman in the arena. And that person, Obama said, was one who could take on ISIS, who could take on the Russians, who was ready to deal with guns leaving schoolchildren dead in their classroom and the madness that leaves cops dead in the streets.
But Obama’s point, which he made with sometimes smiling incredulity, was to wonder how the America he knew, the decent and generous and optimistic America that had elected him twice, was actually considering a homegrown demagogue looking to find an America that never was, someone whose arena was a TV studio, a helicopter with 24-carat-gold seat belts and a bankruptcy court where the suckers helped pay his way.
And so the terms were set.
To Hillary Clinton’s delight, the convention, which she will close tonight in, yes, the most important speech of her life, has featured three days of Democrats delivering their best material. Michelle Obama gave the speech of a lifetime on family values, the old Republican stand-by. Joe Biden was Joe Biden, and if he thrilled a still-divided crowd with dreams of what might have been had he run, he was there in service of Clinton, as Uncle Joe of Scranton, Pa., who would shout in his best Biden voice, “We are America, second to none, and we own the finish line! Don’t forget it! Come on, we’re America!”
In defense of that America, Obama delivered his version of the morning-in-America speech, talking of an America where “we don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.” He didn’t just invoke Reagan, he cited him, and wondered how Republicans could fail to see what he saw.
“Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill’,” Obama said. “Donald Trump calls it ‘a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix.”
This wasn’t Democrats versus Republican, he said, or liberals versus conservatives. This was Democrats vs. demagoguery.
“Our power,” he said, “doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.”
I can remember when Republicans mocked Obama as the savior. I’m sure Obama can remember it, too. This wasn’t mockery. This wasn’t a Donald roast. This was Obama reminding America that Trump had said, “I alone can fix it,” and Obama saying to look again, to look more closely, to see the threat, and to say, “No, you can’t.”
Flickr photo by Nathan Forget