“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,” Obama said from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, where he was flanked by the text of the U.S. Constitution. “Because that’s what's at stake right now. Our democracy.”
Obama used Wednesday’s speech and its symbolic backdrop to frame the upcoming election in stark terms. He warned against complacency, arguing that cynicism and apathy in the face of Trump’s attacks on democratic norms would cause the entire system to wither away “until there’s no democracy at all.”
“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” Obama said. “So we have to get busy building it up – by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before – for Joe and Kamala, and candidates up and down the ticket, so that we leave no doubt about what this country we love stands for – today and for all our days to come.”
Obama’s stinging remarks mark his most direct attacks against Trump to date, and a remarkable rebuke by a former president of a sitting president. He has periodically swiped at Trump, but otherwise remained out of the public eye save for when he hit the trail during the 2018 midterms.
He hammered Trump on Wednesday over his character, his treatment of protesters, his attacks on the free press and his lack of commitment to the job.
“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,” Obama said, echoing a theme that has also been brought up by other speakers at the convention.
“But he never did,” he continued. “For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; 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.”
The former president went on to lament the consequences of Trump not growing into the job as presidency, citing the coronavirus death toll and the economic fallout from the pandemic.
The former president could provide a boost to Biden’s campaign that few others in the Democratic Party are capable of.
A Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted last week found 58 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of the former president. Biden had a favorability rating of 46 percent in the same poll.
Obama's affection for Biden, who he referred to as “a brother” was notable in the address.
“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,” Obama said. “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.’”
The push to defeat Trump is in many ways personal for Obama.
Trump has long begrudged Obama, dating back to his time as a private citizen. Trump rose to prominence by propagating the racist conspiracy theory that the then-president was not born in the United States.
Since taking office, the president has waged an ongoing battle against Obama over unproven claims that he “spied” on the Trump campaign, recently accusing him of “treason.”
Trump returned to that line of attack while Obama was speaking at the convention, again making the accusation.
Trump has more recently blamed his own bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic on the Obama administration and recently said it was his predecessor’s fault the country was so divided. The novel coronavirus did not exist until years after Obama left office.
The Trump administration has also undone or attempted to reverse many of Obama’s signature accomplishments. The president has moved to gut the Affordable Care Act, remove the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords and negate numerous environmental regulations.
Obama’s speech is nearly certain to get under Trump’s skin, just as Michelle Obama’s did two nights earlier. In fact, the president made clear he was watching, firing off multiple all-caps tweets attacking Obama as he delivered his speech.
“President Obama did not do a good job, and the reason I’m here is because of President Obama and Joe Biden,” Trump said during a briefing Wednesday when a reporter read him excerpts of Obama’s speech. “Because if they did a good job, I wouldn’t be here.”