Former President Barack Obama delivered his sharpest broadside yet against President Donald Trump, blasting his successor as unserious and self-centered and cautioning that core democratic institutions have been imperiled by the Trump presidency.
“I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies,” Obama said in his remarks at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday. “I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously. But he never did."
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” Obama continued. “And the consequences of that failure are severe: 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.”
Obama portrayed the president as a catastrophically ineffective leader who has used the office only to benefit himself and his friends and spoke with an urgency not often seen from a man who has largely declined to weigh in on the Trump outrage du jour. Trump, he said, views the presidency as no more than a “reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves."
He dismissed Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, asserting that “our ability to work together to solve big problems like a pandemic depends on a fidelity to facts and science and logic and not just making stuff up.”
In the address, delivered at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia against a backdrop of the Constitution, Obama also urged voters on the fence to vote for the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, saying the very democracy of the country is at stake.
He accused Trump “and those in power” of ginning up and feeding off Americans’ cynicism about the government, appearing to blink back tears as he pleaded with voters not to give in to such feelings.
“That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all,” Obama asserted. “We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy.”
He betrayed a rare pessimism in the president’s willingness to cling to power, asserting that “this administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
Taking aim at Trump’s 2016 nomination acceptance speech, during which Trump proclaimed that “I alone can fix” the nation’s ills, Obama argued that “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,” he continued. “So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability … to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.”
Obama’s scathing words echoed the motif of Biden as the anti-Trump that has been repeated throughout the convention. Former President Bill Clinton called the Trump administration “chaos” on Tuesday and former first lady Michelle Obama said Trump was in “over his head” in the Oval Office.
Trump appeared to be watching Obama’s speech, blasting out a pair of all-caps tweets as the former president spoke.
HE SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, AND GOT CAUGHT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2020
“HE SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, AND GOT CAUGHT!” Trump wrote in one.
In the other, he implied that Obama’s desire to stay out of the Democratic primary should be read as a slight to Biden.
“WHY DID HE REFUSE TO ENDORSE SLOW JOE UNTIL IT WAS ALL OVER, AND EVEN THEN WAS VERY LATE? WHY DID HE TRY TO GET HIM NOT TO RUN?” he wrote.
Obama’s broadside against Trump drew blood before his speech was even delivered.
Responding to an excerpt of Obama’s speech at a White House news briefing, Trump ripped his predecessor for what he characterized as the “stupidity of the transactions that he made” while in office, going on to tout the perceived accomplishments of his own administration.
“President Obama did not do a good job, and the reason I’m here is because of President Obama and Joe Biden,” Trump told reporters.
“Because if they did a good job,” he continued, “I wouldn’t be here. And, probably, if they did a good job, I wouldn’t have even run. I would have been very happy. I enjoyed my previous life very much. But they did such a bad job that I stand before you as president.”
Obama also talked up his former No. 2, describing Biden as both a confidant during their time in the White House and a close personal friend — going so far as to call him a “brother.” The former president’s address was preceded by video footage of Obama surprising Biden toward the end of his presidency with the Medal of Freedom, extolling an emotional Biden as "the best vice president America's ever had."
He pointed to Biden’s relevant work in the administration, including his role in recovery efforts during the 2008 financial crisis, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and addressing the H1N1 pandemic.
Obama also lauded Biden’s character, explaining that despite their age gap and different upbringings, “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, Joe, but you’re better than nobody,’” he added. “That empathy, that decency, the belief that everybody counts — that's who Joe is.”
The former president's remarks helped close out the night’s events, shortly before Kamala Harris accepted her nomination as the Democratic Party's vice president.
Michelle Obama and Jill Biden offered the closing remarks to Monday’s and Tuesday’s convention programming, and their speeches were viewed as some of the most memorable moments in the convention so far.
The former first and second ladies were praised for their candor, discussing Biden’s work as a vice president and his character as a family man. Barack Obama’s remarks add to those accounts, showing Biden’s reliability as a political partner.
“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.”
Quint Forgey contributed to this report.