In a blistering rebuke of President Donald Trump in Wednesday’s Democratic Party convention, Barack Obama declared “Democracy was never meant to be transactional – you give me your vote; I make everything better.
Obama, who spoke live Wednesday night from Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, said “So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability – to embrace your own responsibility as citizens – to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what at stake right now. Our democracy.”
He accused his successor of unleashing America’s “worst impulses” and treating the presidency as a reality show “to get the attention he craves.”
Speaking ahead of Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate – the nation’s first Black president handing off to the first Black woman on a major party presidential ticket, the ex-US President remarked “I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president.
“I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. 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.
According to him, “But he never did. He’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.
“I’m well aware that in times as polarized as these, most of you have already made up your mind. But maybe you’re still not sure which candidate you’ll vote for – or whether you’ll vote at all. Maybe you’re tired of the direction we’re headed, but you can’t yet see a better path, or you just don’t know enough about the person who wants to lead us there.
Speaking glowingly about his one-time Vice, Obama aaccentuated thus, “So let me tell you about my friend Joe Biden.
“Twelve years ago, when I began my search for a vice president, I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother. Joe and I came from different places and different generations. But what I quickly came to admire about him is his resilience, born of too much struggle; his empathy, born of too much grief.
“Joe’s a man who learned early on to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him: ‘No one’s better than you, but you’re better than nobody.”
“Over eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision. He made me a better president. He’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.”
“Tonight, I am asking you to believe in Joe and Kamala’s ability to lead this country out of dark times and build it back better. But here’s the thing: no single American can fix this country alone.
“I am also asking you to believe in your own ability – to embrace your own responsibility as citizens – to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure,” Obama said.
Even in the heat of campaigns, former presidents are typically more restrained than other politicians in their criticisms of a sitting president. Yet Obama’s remarks – his most personal and direct critique of Trump yet – reveal the 44th president’s striking disregard for the nation’s current commander in chief.
Obama’s headlining role at the convention is aimed in part at galvanizing younger, more liberal voters who may not have a natural affinity for the 77-year-old Biden, a career politician with a more moderate record.
Democrats see Obama as a bridge to those voters, someone who can speak both to Biden’s character and to the urgency of progressives pushing for more sweeping change to the nation’s economic and domestic policies.
Obama forged a close personal relationship with Biden during their eight years together in the White House and has been a sounding board for him throughout the 2020 campaign. In his speech, Obama says that when he set out to pick a vice president, “I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother.”
Yet there’s an inherent tension in Obama’s role as one of the most powerful and important surrogates for Biden. Obama’s own political rise was fueled by the power of barrier-breaking, generational change, and he’s encouraged “new blood” in politics.
More recently, Obama drew attention during the 2020 Democratic primary when he said many of the world’s problems have been due to “old people, usually old men, not getting out of the way.”
Indeed, the former president has enviable popularity, both among Democrats and all Americans. A Fox News poll conducted in May found 93% of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Obama, as did 63% of all registered voters.
Despite that strong support, there has been some rethinking of Obama’s legacy among some of his party’s most liberal activists, who argue he didn’t go far enough in overhauling the nation’s health care system and gave too much away to Republicans in fiscal negotiations.
Obama himself has acknowledged there was more he wanted to do, but argued he was hamstrung by the realities of a Republican-controlled House, and eventually Senate, for much of his tenure.
Progressives cheered in particular when Obama called for eliminating the Senate filibuster rules requiring 60 votes on major pieces of legislation, calling it a “Jim Crow relic” that is holding up rewriting voting rights laws. His surprise comments came during his eulogy at the funeral of the late civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis.