The first thing I noticed about Barack Obama’s electrifying speech Wednesday night were the first words he spoke. “Hello, America,” he said first, and only after that, “Hello, Democrats.”
You may not listen for that sort of thing, but I do. The point of a convention is not to speak to partisans. It’s to speak to America. And yet so few speakers talk to America. They talk to Democrats or delegates. That Obama said hello first to America reflects the fact that he’s been the president of all the people for eight years, but it also puts emphasis on a clear awareness on his part that Hillary Clinton can’t win the presidency with partisan Democrats alone. So his message wasn’t just to Democrats. It was delivered, with force, to all of America.
Who else has been thinking over just the last few months that they’re really going to miss this guy? He did some things very well, and some things not so well. I have my critique of his highs and lows, as we all do. But he—and Michelle—have dignified and ennobled the White House and our country. They’ve taken so much insane artillery from the other side and never once sunk to anywhere near the level of their attackers. When they went low, as Michelle said, the Obamas went high. We’re going to owe them a lot, and people will know that next January, when they fly off.
Michelle still holds the belt for the heavyweight speech of this convention, but Barack’s was a great speech that was deceptively complex. For example, that “Hello, America” thing, which I’m sure made independents tuning in listen differently from the start, even if they may not have not have known it. Another example: Obama’s decision to place Donald Trump outside the trajectory of contemporary Republicanism. “What we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican and it wasn’t conservative,” he said.
Now most liberals (like me, say) would tell you that Trump is the logical end point of today’s crazy conservatism. His heterodox trade position is nothing compared to his embodiment of the GOP id. But Obama said no, Republicans, I’m saying he isn’t an extension of you. He’s a perversion of you. That line “we don’t look to be ruled” got massive applause, and it was obvious what, and whom, it was about.
In doing all that—and this is the second thing I noticed—he claimed the center. But he claimed it in a very different way from the way Democrats used to try to claim the center 20 years ago. Then, Democrats used to try to claim the center by implicitly conceding that the Republican nominee spoke for “normal” Americans but insisting “Hey, see, we’re normal too!” But now, Obama claimed the center by saying, “Your nominee is a freak. Our nominee represents the center.”
And yet, even as he did that, and here was the third thing, he threw several important bouquets to the left, too. “That’s right—feel the Bern!” he said at one point. His praise of Bernie Sanders, and even of Sanders’ supporters, and his odes to progressive goals weren’t enough for the dead-enders, because what would be, but they were more than enough for everyone else, and the everyone elses vastly outnumber the dead-enders.
And fourth, he sang Hillary’s praises better than Bill did. “She knows that sometime in those 40 years, she’s made mistakes just like I have, just like we all do,” he said. “That’s what happens when we try.” But he then invoked the Republican Teddy Roosevelt to speak of the leader “who strives valiantly, who errs, but who in the end knows the triumph of high achievement... Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena. You gotta get in the arena with her. We’re gonna carry Hillary to victory this fall because that’s what the moment demands.” It was as strong—and sincere—an endorsement speech for a successor as I’ve heard in my quarter-century of covering these things.
And fifth and last was the way he spoke about America. “The taking on of Trumpism as a philosophy,” as GOP consultant but anti-Trumper Steve Schmidt put it on MSNBC after the speech. It was this kind of rhetoric that made Obama a star in the first place, indeed that made him president, going back to the speech at the 2004 Boston convention, delivered 12 years ago Wednesday night.
Trump’s America is a junkyard, or an Escape From New York dystopia where dog is set against dog. Obama’s America is the exact opposite. Ironic that the dark America is the one on offer from the white guy who inherited a million dollars, back when that was real money, and the optimistic America is the one put forward by the guy who’s black and who felt, by his own earlier account, no small amount of anger when he was young. But he transcended, while Trump descended. People watching both speeches may not quite be able to articulate this dichotomy, but they can feel it in their bones.
And besides those five points, there’s a sixth one: He has so embodied the office. Watching that intro film took us back to 2009, when he was sometimes unsure of himself. But man, has he grown into the position. He is a good man, and he is what a leader is supposed to be. We’ve been lucky to have him, and Hillary will be lucky to have him this fall.