We have a tradition of addressing politicians by their honorifics after they have left office, and it has always made me a bit uneasy. Walking up to former officials and saying “Mr. Mayor” or “Congresswoman” or “Mr. President,” when they are now everyday citizens again, confers a certain unintended royalty with the position. That is something that Americans, by nature, should eschew. Unless they are still performing the responsibilities of the job, why still carry the title?
President Barack Obama, though, was still performing his former duties on the third night of the Democratic National Convention. Returning to Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center — where in 2008, he delivered the famed “A More Perfect Union” address as a candidate for president — the former commander-in-chief once again gave one of the most emotional political speeches of his public life, taking what may be his best chance to speak to all Americans before Election Day to issue a historic indictment both of Donald Trump’s performance on the job and his soiling of the institution itself. In doing so, he made a passionate argument not merely for his vice president to be elected, but also for the value of the presidency to the public at-large.
This is the speech many on the left have been begging Obama to give. One can only imagine what it would have been like in front of a crowd, but it is good that it wasn’t. It needed the somber, quiet background, as Kamala Harris had immediately afterwards, that underscored the horrible absence of people left by the coronavirus pandemic. But we could hear every word, and notice even the beginning of a sob. Never again can people plead for the former president to get hyped up or get emotional. It happened.
In calling Democratic nominee Joe Biden his “brother” and lauding Harris, his running mate, as “an ideal partner who’s more than prepared for the job,” Obama, who remains the North Star in the party’s politics, performed a bit of an anointing. However, his praise for them and their respective abilities and American stories came after taking a similar approach to his wife, Michelle, who had also criticized Trump primarily on his poor job performance and failure to uphold the standards of the presidency. “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,” said Obama, his forceful enunciation of Trump’s name reminding us how rarely he speaks it out loud. “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.”
The condemnation that followed surely resonated with anyone who has seen an entitled jerk fill a job in which they’ve excelled, and go on to demand a promotion after a slothful performance. Obama noted, above all, that Trump has “shown no interest in putting in the work,” adding that “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe.” The former president’s tone, as he uttered that last word, matched its definition. It recalled what I hear from those close to me as we discuss the daily Trump calamity and its dire repercussions. The tone would evoke disbelief if it weren’t all so real.
Obama didn’t betray any worry for his legacy. I didn’t see the speech as a fearful one, as some have interpreted it. He appeared justifiably angry about the future of his country, and his words and cadence demanded that we share his alarm. He spoke of the virus that has killed more than 170,000 Americans, a figure that he uttered slowly enough to have it register with an America growing increasingly numb to death. The jobs that have been lost, Obama noted with a palpable frustration, are gone. This administration has indeed removed the veneer that the United States is somehow a world leader in human rights, but ruining our global reputation was not part of a process of truth and reconciliation. Instead, he soiled America’s image with nationalist brutality, done under the clumsy cover of rah-rah jingoism. Perhaps more forcefully than ever, Obama named, out loud, Trump as the culprit of this chaos.
However, this would not be the same man if there was not a note of hope, and a push for change. Obama paid tribute to the late John Lewis and recounted how when he sat down with the civil-rights giant and some of his fellow activists some years ago, one said to him “he never imagined he’d walk into the White House and see a president who looked like his grandson. Then he told me that he’d looked it up, and it turned out that on the very day that I was born, he was marching into a jail cell, trying to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. What we do echoes through the generations.” It was then that it appeared that Obama may have been holding back tears.
Again, this wasn’t about being scared or terrified. Never mind the stereotypes about black male anger; Obama is who he is. He doesn’t display it the same way you or I might, and demanding that he do so for our catharsis or political benefit is frankly odd. Anger is an opiate when misapplied, but Wednesday night was the moment, and Obama knew how to signal his overtly.
There seemed to be a purpose to this. Obama stated in his speech how these times have made so many others resentful, fearful, or cynical, but he knows that all those emotions can arrest progress rather than inspire it. As a pandemic rages and a president assaults the voting rights of every citizen, asking the national electorate to keep faith in the American ideal of democracy is a difficult case to make. But as Obama knows, being an avid churchgoer and steeped in black pastoral oratory tradition, preachers face a similar dilemma every Sunday in underserved neighborhoods. They must inspire people whom the system has failed, folks and families who often have every reason to give up. And the former president did not merely ask us to keep the faith in the American project, but demanded that we back that up with works to justify the sacrifice of our forebears.
“If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.”
This is a message that in years past, one might have expected to hear from Lewis. But as Trump threatens to discard democracy like a used table napkin, voters needed to hear this message, and they needed to hear it from perhaps the only person who could deliver it. As the first black president, Obama speaks as a living tipping point of the American struggle with racism, and as the last and most successful man alive to sit at the Resolute Desk, he can speak better than anyone about the importance of his former office. He understands from both standpoints, as a black man and as a former president, how so many worked to give the invented idea of American democracy meaning that is worth dying for. In a year in which we may have to risk our lives to vote Trump out, that is something that we needed to hear.