In his last major political speech as president, Barack Obama had the opportunity to do something novel—be a popular president who gives a boost to his putative successor, something Americans haven’t seen in recent memory.
And he did it by recognizing how tired Americans have become of the brand of politics practiced during his term in office, even as he reminded them why they put him there in the first place.
Obama’s speech endorsing Clinton—her toughness, her persistence, and her judgment—was genuine because of the respect she earned from him as his secretary of State, and because her election is the only chance of preserving the work of his administration from being dismantled by her Republican rival, Donald Trump.
It was a classic Obama text, extolling the simple virtues of diverse Americans coming together to make their lives better, and building on a night of patriotic gestures, to contrast with Trump’s apocalyptic depiction of a United States in crisis.
“He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election,”Obama told a frankly rapturous crowd. “That is another bet that Donald Trump will lose. Because he’s selling the American people short.”
Obama contrasted the frustrating “work of self-government” and “business of democracy” with the false promise of “what one person says he’ll do for us.” Trump’s rhetoric may sound tempting in the face of political gridlock, but Obama warned that impatience should lead voters to fear their leaders have sold out—a subtle rebuke to his party’s left.
Deftly, he held up his health care reform act and Sanders’ own fervent cadres as the solution.
“Democracy works, but we gotta want it—not just during an election year, but all the days in between,”he said. “If you agree that there’s too much inequality in our economy, and too much money in our politics, we all need to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders’ supporters have been.”
At one point, as delegates booed a mention of Trump, Obama quickly replied, “Don’t boo. Vote.”
But, as always, he urged people to look beyond political disagreements to find the values behind them.
“If you want to fight climate change, we’ve got to engage not only young people on college campuses, but reach out to the coal miner who’s worried about taking care of his family, the single mom worried about gas prices,” he told the audience.
He recalled the story of his grandparents in Kansas, the roots of his American family and how he understands America, to explain why “anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
“They valued traits like honesty and hard work. Kindness and courtesy. Humility; responsibility; helping each other out. That’s what they believed in,” he said. “That’s America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.”
One last time, Obama asked Americans not to be cynical in the face of politics.