Sixteen years ago, Barack Obama captured the hearts of many Americans with a youthful, exuberant hope in his keynote address in Boston. Now, Obama is the retired elder statesman, reminding us Wednesday night that despite Donald Trump’s American carnage, his hope remains.
Obama opened his remarks by saying, “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. But he never did. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”
What followed was a gutting and filleting of Trump well more severe than his wife’s from Monday night. “The consequences of [Trump’s] failure are severe,” Obama said. “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.”
No former president in modern memory has attacked a sitting president as severely as Obama did Wednesday night. And obviously, it stung the incumbent, who tweeted just as Obama was finishing up: “HE SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, AND GOT CAUGHT!” And: “WHY DID HE REFUSE TO ENDORSE SLOW JOE UNTIL IT WAS ALL OVER, AND EVEN THEN WAS VERY LATE?”
I’d initially thought the speech was just going to continue in that register, with 44 finally calling out 45 by name. But it didn’t. After about three or four strong body punches, Obama pulled back. Despite his grey hairs and fatigued visage, he tried to give us hope and implored us to act to save our democracy to create the future we have always hoped for. Obama gave his speech in Philadelphia, at the National Constitution Center no less, to remind us all of America’s inspirational democratic ideals.
Philadelphia was also fitting because his speech focused on the importance of brotherly love—for the man he has often called his brother. “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,” said Obama.
In his remarks you could feel the grief in his words, but also the hope that keeps him and Biden going. From the beginning of their brotherhood, America has joked about their “bromance,” but we really need to understand how profound their Black and white brotherhood truly is in the grand narrative of American history and our quest to form a more perfect union.
Until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, America had made it nearly impossible for Black and white Americans to form lasting friendships. Many white Americans joined the fight for freedom and equality because of moral objections to Jim Crow but not because they knew the Black American who had just been beaten or lynched.
“Instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work,” said Obama. “Americans of all races joining together to declare, in the face of injustice and brutality at the hands of the state, that Black Lives Matter, no more, but no less, so that no child in this country feels the continuing sting of racism.”
Their brotherhood precedes the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle to defeat Trump, and this distinction can have a revolutionary impact on the future of American life.
The struggle to find hope within a document that legalized your enslavement and perpetuated your subjugation has defined Black existence in America, so as Obama navigated us through the evolution of hope he had to talk about the passing of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.
Obama frequently mentions how Lewis’ unwavering hope as he looked possible death in the face on the Edmund Pettus Bridge inspired him to run for the presidency, and Wednesday night Obama reminded us of how his presidency gave hope to Lewis’s generation as they continued to fight and create “good trouble.”
The fight for equality and democracy of the past resembles and inspires our present struggles. “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So we have to get busy building it up—by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before,” said Obama.
In 2004, Obama took America to that better place. In four years under Trump we have witnessed a tragic regression. Wednesday night, America’s dignified elder statesman spoke about it. He said plainly that while the man in the Oval Office may be hopeless, he still wants us to continue to hope.