Barack Obama shot into the public eye in 2004 with an idealistic speech about the possibilities of America. He has always sought to understand and reason with his political opponents, and when he attacked them, he did so with subtlety. A writer by trade, he has always weighed his words carefully and is loathe to cheapen their currency.
For that reason, it is notable how Obama depicted Donald Trump in his convention address on Wednesday night. He did not acknowledge his adversary’s perspective or gesture toward his goals. He presented him as utterly corrupt, irredeemable, and a threat to American democracy.
Trump, he said, failed to “feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us.” Obama didn’t accuse Trump of failing to safeguard the country. He accused him, quite accurately, of failing even to care about the well-being of those who aren’t his supporters.
He accused Trump of using the office to enrich himself and his cronies, and using the military as props to attack peaceful protesters. And Trump has “shown no interest in putting in the work,” or interest in the job except as a means for self-glorification. Trump, as if to confirm the indictment, banged out two all-caps tweets attacking Obama and Biden during Obama’s speech, revealing his lack of impulse control.
But what was most striking was that Obama depicted Trump as a threat to American democracy. His famous line about the arc of history bending toward justice was never the entirety of his view. Obama has always told the story of America as a push and pull between progress and reaction, advances followed by retreats. He has always placed his opponents — the Paul Ryans and the Mitt Romneys — in that context.
He put Trump outside that dynamic. The whole future, he warned, rests on ending Trump’s reign: “Any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
He delivered the warning with almost four years of taut, pent-up energy released in one blow: “That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all … Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.”
Here is an American president warning that American democracy may not survive his immediate successor. Obama has always maintained a preternatural calm. Throughout his eight years in office, he was gently mocked as a Vulcan, chided for his lack of urgency and emotion, always underreacting to the latest developments while everybody else lost their head. This is the first time I have ever seen him express fear.