Obama Returns to His Biography

Twelve years after introducing himself to the American public as the son of an immigrant, the president recast himself as a bearer of Scotch-Irish values.

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

Twelve years ago, Barack Obama introduced himself to America as just a skinny kid with a funny name. He made his story into the American story—a tale of immigrant hopes, of opportunities, of success that could only come true in the United States. That speech launched him to the presidency.

In Philadelphia on Wednesday night, as he tried to anoint his successor and secure his legacy, he returned to his biography to close his appeal. But this time, he pulled out a different strand of the story. He spoke not just of his grandparents in Kansas, whose stories he has told many times before, but of their kin and communities, of their vision and values. They were, he said:

Scotch-Irish mostly, farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil-rig workers. Hardy, small-town folk. Some were Democrats, but a lot of them, maybe even most of them, were Republicans—Party of Lincoln. My grandparents explained that the folks in these parts, they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, what they valued were traits like honesty and hard work. Kindness; courtesy; humility; responsibility; helping each other out. That’s what they believed in. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids.

It’s a different kind of American story. Not the son of a Kenyan goatherd rising directly to the highest office in the land, but working families toiling for generation after generation with quiet pride, relying on each other.

Obama placed himself in the same cultural tradition as the Borderers who form Donald Trump’s core of support. But he reframed that tradition in direct opposition to the style that Trump displays on the trail. And he argued that, however distinctive that culture might once have been, its values had become in the fullness of time American values, passed to each successive generation of immigrants and to Americans of other backgrounds:

They knew these values weren’t reserved for one race; they could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter; in fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago.

It’s as close as any speaker at the Democratic convention has come to talking not just to the suburban professionals or college-educated women who are the likeliest swing voters in 2016—Republicans uneasy with their nominee—but to the voters who embraced Trump in the primary, and saw in him something the other 16 Republican candidates didn’t offer.

If Trump has rallied the white voters of Appalachia—and blue-collar white voters across the country—to his side by offering to serve as their champion, Obama tried to win them back by insisting that the cultural changes they find threatening are more illusory than real, that the commonalities far outweigh the differences. He argued that “we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own,” and that diversity offers strength.

The convention-hall crowd roared its approval.

It’s the same essential message he offered 12 years ago, and eight years ago, and four years ago. And when he was on the ticket himself, it proved a winning message. But it did not vault John Kerry into office, and it may prove no more availing to Hillary Clinton. But on Wednesday, Obama delivered his message to a nation more polarized and divided than when he first offered it, to voters more convinced than ever that their differences are real.

And when he conceded of his relatives that “a lot of them, maybe even most of them, were Republicans,” he acknowledged what, to him, must be a bitter truth—in 2016, most voters in communities like theirs are backing Donald Trump. The open question is whether they will see a place for themselves in the picture of a changing America that Obama painted.