It was obvious Barack Obama didn’t relish the job, but he agreed to take it on anyway. The former two-term president felt compelled, he said, because the 2020 election is like none other — the very concept of American democracy itself is on the line.
In taking the fight Wednesday night to his successor, Obama performed a role reversal of sorts. Typically, it’s the political party’s vice presidential nominee who savages the opposition candidate. The woman of the hour, Kamala Harris, did get some digs in against President Trump, but she spent most of her time on the podium in the empty Wilmington, Del., convention hall drawing attention to her remarkable personal journey and the history she made last night in becoming the first woman of color to join the presidential ticket of a major U.S. political party. While Obama may have delivered the convention night’s strongest moments, the lineup itself, and Harris’ role as closer, clinched her status as the Democratic Party’s new heir apparent — in essence, its future.
As she and her husband, Doug Emhoff, stood with Joe and Jill Biden on the stage afterwards, Harris’ sharp jabs at Biden over racial issues during the primary were forgiven — and even viewed as a strength, because it indicates a willingness to go for the jugular of the GOP ticket of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Just last week, Harris embraced the traditional veep attack-dog role and came out swinging after Biden officially announced her as his choice. She’ll have plenty of opportunities to keep doing so. Trump was closely following the convention night speeches Wednesday, dashing off a series of all-caps broadsides during his predecessor’s address.
One day after Democrats officially nominated Biden, a 77-year-old fixture of official Washington, the spotlight was supposed to shift to Harris, the child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, who reflects the shifting demographics of the country and her party’s continued leftward march. But as Democrats built their case for ousting Trump on the third night of their virtual convention, it was Obama who put aside his usual cool confidence to skewer Trump and all but steal the show.
There were no subtleties in Obama’s message. The time for that had long since passed, he said. The nation’s first African American president, who was swept into office calling for “hope and change,” painted a dark portrait of President Trump’s time in office and what another four years of such leadership would bring.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. The consequences of that failure are severe,” Obama said during remarks delivered in Philadelphia. He then directly blamed Trump for the 170,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 and the millions who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
If Trump is allowed to remain president, immigrants will remain fearful of deportations, the economy “will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected” and the nation’s health system “will let more people fall through the cracks.”
“That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all,” Obama warned, at times growing emotional.
“We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy,” he added, imploring voters to “make a plan right now” for how they will vote for Biden, whom he called “my friend” and a “brother” repeatedly lauded for his empathy and decency. “For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision,” he said. “He made me a better president – and he’s got the character and experience to make us a better country.”
When it was Harris’ turn to speak, she reintroduced herself by fleshing out her own story. She discussed her mother’s influence on her life, along with her sister’s, and described how her parents fell in love “while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
“In the streets of Oakland and Berkeley,” she said, “I got a stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble.’”
She went on to say that her parents split when she was 5 years old and that her mom reared her daughters “mostly on her own” while working “around the clock to make it work.”
“She raised us to be proud, strong black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage,” Harris added.
Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, died in 2009. She had, Harris recalled, long before taught her daughters to “be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people” and to believe that the “fight for justice in a shared responsibility.”
It was those values that led her to become a prosecutor, she said proudly, ignoring the criticism that she put too many people in jail for minor crimes. She offered no concrete concessions to progressives, many of whom remain dissatisfied with Biden as the presidential candidate and pushed for a different VP pick as well. Responding to the moment, however, she made racial injustice a defining focus of her speech, implying that she would make fighting systemic racism and police brutality a top priority even if Biden took a more modest approach.
The pandemic, she said, has hit minority communities disproportionately hard – a problem she blamed on “structural racism”: “inequalities in education, technology, health care and housing, job security and transportation, reproductive and maternal health care,” and the “excessive use of force in the broader criminal justice system.”
She invoked the name of George Floyd, a black man whose killing by a Minneapolis police officer this spring sparked violent racial unrest across the country. “There is no vaccine for racism,” she said. “We’ve got to do the work. For George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for the lives of too many others to name.”
The strategy won her immediate praise from party loyalists. “Lots of people watched Kamala Harris while holding their daughters’ hands tonight,” Van Jones enthused on CNN moments after the debate was over. “Usually a VP [candidate] brings a blow torch, she brought the campfire.”
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was less impressed. He described her speech as “a lot of Democratic boilerplate” that followed the “single magic moment” when she made history and formally accepted the nomination.
Other Wednesday headliners were selected to underscore the history-making moment of Harris’ nomination during the week marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both clad in all-white in a homage to suffragists, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren offered their blessings.
But it was Obama who seized on the urgency of the moment to most effectively assail Trump while making the case for Biden and Harris.
“Joe and Kamala will restore our standing in the world – and as we’ve learned from this pandemic, that matters,” the former president said. “[Biden] knows that our true strength comes from setting an example the world wants to follow – a nation that stands with democracy, not dictators; a nation that can inspire and mobilize to overcome threats like climate change, terrorism, poverty and disease.
“But more than anything, what I know about Joe, what I know about Kamala, is that they care about every American,” he said.