The buzz in Philadelphia on Wednesday felt less like the excitement that surrounds a big convention speech, and more like someone’s final concert.
The modern premise of a final show is that an era is ending — until the person gets the itch again and decides to come back. Barack Obama still has months to go in office, and will be giving speeches on the road for Hillary Clinton up until November, but the Democratic National Convention could be the final major speech of his presidency. So, Wednesday night was a farewell — a victory lap.
Obama’s big-speech catalog plays like a discography. Like any great artist, he has his inarguable classics, others that have gotten better with time, some easy-to-forget deep cuts, and a few duds. In these speeches, every few minutes is a track, and next thing you know 45, or 60, or 75 minutes have passed, and now he’s coming down the home stretch — telling you about that grandmother he met in Lansing, Michigan, who can’t keep up with her car payments, or those twin Navajo brothers from Pensacola, Florida, who want to start a small business but can’t get a loan from the bank because they’re twin Navajo brothers in Pensacola, Florida. And then, just like that, there’s your next album.
Twelve years ago, on the same DNC stage in Boston, Massachusetts, Barack Obama introduced himself to the world. The speech in 2004 became his Reasonable Doubt — the classic Jay-Z debut that is one of the standards of first releases, but also forever a point of comparison against which later work is measured. In that vein, Wednesday night’s speech was Barack’s Black Album, Wells Fargo Arena, his Madison Square Garden.
First, there was a tribute video, equal parts informative tribute and classy middle finger, outlining all of the trials, accomplishments, and sparsely credited aspects of Obama’s eight years in office. You saw familiar faces, some still very present in the Obama universe, others a part of the story but at some point written out of the show. Watching the president cry while talking about the Sandy Hook Massacre, saying, “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad” made me remember how many unforgettable events have been lost in the shuffle over the past eight years.
Then the lights came up and there he was. And wouldn’t you know it, Barack Obama walked out for his final major speech to “City of Blinding Lights” by U2. The room exploded in cheers, but I was sitting in my chair, laughing almost to the point of tears. It was almost as if, until the final day, he was going to troll me. There were always the near-perfect moments for me with Obama — an event, a speech, or a stance that went according to the script that I’d created in my head, until one thing happened that made me roll my eyes or scream. I spent many of the early Obama years saying, “why won’t he just … ” and “did he really just … “ before I fully understood that politics is not a world where you can do every single thing you want to in public. Even walk-out music is political. So when I heard U2, I laughed, because it was a final reminder of that lesson.
He went on to discuss how tough she was, how they battled each other for a year and a half, and then said, “There has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill, nobody — more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” It was one of the loudest moments I heard at either convention.
Back in 2007 — the year Barack and Hillary began running against each other — I attended an Obama rally at Dartmouth that held the biggest collection of people I had ever seen in small-town Hanover, New Hampshire. At that point, Obama’s views were well-articulated, but he still didn’t really have much to say that put him on the opposite side of the field to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. “I think she’s running a terrific race,” Obama said at the press conference afterwards. “We’re all on the same team, we’re all just running for quarterback.”
This was the line that ran through my head on Wednesday night as Obama spoke of his respect and admiration for Hillary: the clear sincerity that emanated when he spoke of her as someone built to be the next president of the United States. Marching toward the final bars of the final song of his (potentially) final presidential album, Obama said: “I’m ready to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen.”
Looking out, seeing and hearing the crowd in front of him, he hung on longer than usual to those last few lines, pausing between each almost to soak it all in. Then he briefly put his head down and waved at the crowd. It was a bittersweet look, filled with both pride and fatigue. And just like that, there was nothing more to say.
2004 to 2016: grand opening, grand closing. See you soon, Barack.