Written by Peter Baker
Shortly before the 2016 election, President Barack Obama told supporters that he would consider it “a personal insult” if America chose a bombastic reality television star who trafficked in racist conspiracy theories and stood against everything that he had spent eight years building.
America did it anyway. “This stings,” Obama confessed afterward.
Four years later, Obama returned to the national stage Wednesday night seeking vindication with an implicit defense of his own record and an indignant condemnation of President Donald Trump as a corrupt and failing leader who has used his office to enrich himself, pit Americans against each other and threaten American democracy.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” he said in a 19-minute Democratic convention speech from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “And the consequences of that failure are severe: 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.”
After watching Trump systematically demolish many of his achievements, Obama has almost as much at stake in this year’s campaign as his former vice president and his party’s 2020 presidential nominee, Joe Biden, does — a second chance to redeem his legacy and prove to history that Trump’s election was an anomaly, not a permanent repudiation.
On the line is not just the opportunity to restore programs and international agreements that Trump abandoned and bolster those that remain threatened, but also to rewrite the narrative about America and its values according to Obama. The story line that Obama and his allies promoted for years was that his election as the first Black president and a leader of a new generation demonstrated a fundamental change in the country. Instead, he left behind a nation that elevated his polar opposite as his successor.
“Each president kind of begets the next guy,” William M. Daley, who served as Obama’s White House chief of staff, said in an interview before Obama’s convention speech. “He’s got to clarify what about him didn’t beget this guy. Why did the eight years not change the country when we thought in ’08 things were different?”
This time around, Obama’s vehicle for validation happens to be the same man he gently eased aside for the Democratic nomination in 2016 in favor of Hillary Clinton, the woman Obama himself had defeated in 2008 by telling the country that she was a relic of the past. Many Democratic drinking sessions in the interim have been consumed by the what-if guessing game over what would have happened had Obama anointed Biden instead. It is an exercise the former president himself finds unproductive, according to advisers, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Biden would not have been able to overtake Clinton.
Still, it has left the 44th president addressing a Democratic convention he had never expected — not nominating Clinton for a second term, but wrapping his arms around his vice president to present him as the antidote to Trump’s toxic brand of politics and, even at 77, the rightful heir to the Obama record.
“There is a deep belief by not just Obama, but many people who have worked for him, that we can recover from four years of Trump, but the damage from eight would be irreversible,” said Jen Psaki, who served as Obama’s White House communications director. “That urgency from Obama is powerful.”
In his speech Wednesday night, Obama offered validation for Biden, portraying him as “a brother” to him and “a man who learned early on to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity.” And in praising Biden’s record, Obama managed to frame his own legacy as well, describing how his vice president helped him pull the economy out of recession, expand health care and stem H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks.
He also offered a passionate defense of voting rights at a time when Democrats fear that Republicans are trying to make it harder for Americans to cast ballots. “Do not let them take away your power,” Obama said. “Do not let them take away your democracy.”
Obama’s primary target, though, was Trump, his voice dripping with scorn as he said that while he never expected Trump to embrace his vision, he did hope that the next president “might show some interest in taking the job seriously.”
“But he never did,” Obama said. “For close to four years now, he has 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.”
While he had a 36-year record in the Senate before becoming vice president, Biden has focused far more on the eight he spent in the White House, ostentatiously cloaking himself in the former president’s mantle and citing his service to Obama as a way to appeal to liberals, younger voters and especially African Americans who helped him win key primaries.
Little wonder. Obama remains one of the most popular figures in American life. A new poll by Politico and Morning Consult found that 58% of Americans have a favorable view of the former president, the highest rating of any of the 28 political figures tested other than his wife, Michelle, who topped him with 60%. Biden, by contrast, was seen favorably by 46% and Trump by 39%.
Even so, history has shown that presidents cannot always transfer their personal popularity to others, as Obama was reminded in 2016. And while he has deep affection for Biden, advisers say the former president harbors his own concerns about his former vice president’s chances this year. He had originally picked Biden as his running mate in 2008 as a governing partner, not as a putative successor, and he never groomed any younger figure to follow, leaving the party in 2016 with weathered leadership.
That has left many in his party anxious for him to play the bigger role that until lately he has resisted. Obama has been reluctant to fully engage with Trump or the campaign, only occasionally emerging from his Washington home where he is still writing his overdue memoir to take on the current president, as he did energetically during the 2018 midterm elections and as he had begun to do this year.
“We have no moral voice today — no Martin Luther King, no Nelson Mandela, no John Lewis, no Eleanor Roosevelt,” said Susan Dunn, a presidential historian at Williams College. “Obama could retake that moral role — and not just reclaim his own legacy and not just denounce Trump for reversing all of Obama’s policies and achievements. He’d have to play a more active role in American life as a voice of moderation and decency.”
Obama’s determination to see Trump defeated may be as powerful, or even more so, than his desire to elevate Biden. After all, Trump spent years peddling the lie that Obama might have been born in Africa and has spent much of his presidency unraveling whatever he could of Obama’s legacy. In recent months, the president has twisted the facts to accuse the former president of “spying” on his 2016 campaign and even suggested his predecessor had committed “treason,” a crime that carries the death penalty.
“For Obama, I think this moment isn’t about his legacy or specific policy differences,” said Chris Lu, who managed Obama’s first-term Cabinet. “It’s really about Trump’s repudiation of our common values as Americans and the assault on democratic norms and institutions.”
As for Trump, his fixation on Obama is as strategic as it is visceral, according to his own advisers, stemming from a need to chip away at his predecessor’s popularity and, in the process, disqualify Biden.
“I think the president sees Biden’s strongest card is that he worked for Obama,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax and a friend of Trump. “If Joe’s going to hang his hat on Obama’s record, then this president is going to show that Obama wasn’t as good as you thought.”
Obama and his team have spent some of the last four years asking themselves where things went off track, wondering how a Black president could leave the country more racially polarized, according to polls, than it had been in years and questioning their own understanding of his place in history.
In private conversations with aides after the 2016 election, Obama called Trump a “cartoon” figure, but wondered whether they had misjudged the mood of the country and their own accomplishments. “What if we were wrong?” he asked one aide at the time. “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
Others have second-guessed his failure to take more decisive action to counter the intervention in the 2016 election by President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“Obama’s presidency lost a great deal of luster because of Trump’s surprise victory,” said David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University. “Obama’s retreat from world leadership, which emboldened Putin, encouraged Russia to meddle in the 2016 election.”
A bipartisan Senate report released this week confirmed that Russia intervened in the 2016 election with the goal of helping elect Trump and that Trump’s campaign was willing to be helped, even if special counsel Robert Mueller did not find enough evidence to allege a criminal conspiracy. Trump has rejected such conclusions, dismissing the Russia episode as a “hoax” drummed up by Democrats and “deep-state” actors to smear him.
For Obama, then, Wednesday was a point to move beyond that, to correct what he sees as the mistake of four years ago. The speech, of course, was just a speech. Just one night out of 75 left until Nov. 3. “What could salvage Obama’s legacy isn’t this speech,” said Greenberg, “but whether Biden wins.”
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