Former President Barack Obama used his primetime speaking slot at the virtual Democratic National Convention to make the case for Joe Biden as the next president — and then argued against giving another term to Donald Trump, defying the tradition that former presidents avoid direct criticism of their successors.
"I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president,” Obama said in a live speech from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “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. But he never did.”
Obama, who has been the object of Trump’s insults for years, has mostly refrained from responding. On this occasion, though, he delivered a blistering and direct rebuke of the sitting president.
“For close to four years now, he has shown no interest in putting in the work,” Obama said. “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,” he continued. “170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone, while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
Trump was apparently watching Obama's speech, which was carried live on all major and cable networks. As he spoke, Trump lashed out on Twitter, reiterating the false claim that Obama "spied" on his campaign.
HE SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, AND GOT CAUGHT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2020
The 44th president then made a pitch to voters to support his former vice president.
“Let me tell you about my friend Joe Biden,” Obama recalled. “Twelve years ago, when I began my search for a vice president, I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother.”
The brotherly relationship Obama celebrated wasn’t without tension. Former Obama administration officials have described an occasionally strained relationship between the men and between their respective staffs, particularly during the 2016 primaries. Biden’s camp was reportedly irked that Obama threw his weight behind Hillary Clinton while Biden, still grieving from the recent death of his son, Beau Biden, was considering his own run for president.
Obama, who did not endorse any candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary, privately worried about Biden’s candidacy. (“Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f*** things up,” Obama told one Democrat during the race, according to Politico.)
“Joe and I came from different places and different generations,” Obama said on Wednesday night. “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,” Obama said. “He made me a better president. He’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country."
Obama, the nation’s first Black president, spoke before Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the first Black woman to be nominated on a major party presidential ticket.
"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,” Obama said. “And here’s the thing: No single American can fix this country alone, not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional: You give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry.
“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,” he said. “Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.
"Look, I understand why many Americans are down on government," Obama continued. "The way the rules have been set up and abused in Congress make it easy for special interests to stop progress. Believe me, I know. I understand why a white factory worker who’s seen his wages cut or his job shipped overseas might feel like the government no longer looks out for him, and why a Black mother might feel like it never looked out for her at all. I understand why a new immigrant might look around this country and wonder whether there’s still a place for him here; why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories and think, what’s the point?”
"Well, here’s the point: this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism," Obama said. "We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy."
Like other speakers at the convention, Obama recalled Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the activist and civil rights leader who died last month — and called on young Americans to continue his fight.
“Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight,” he said. “Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshiped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote. If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans.
“You can give our democracy new meaning,” he told voters. “You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.”
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