GREENSBORO, N.C.—Barack Obama didn’t even wait to start speaking. No sooner had he stepped to a lectern Tuesday afternoon than he stepped back away and took off his jacket.
President Obama’s appearances on the trail on behalf of Hillary Clinton this year show a man who is cutting loose and seems to be having a good time. He is, at once, a politician who has nothing to lose, because he never has to face voters again; and a politician who has everything to lose, because a Donald Trump victory would likely doom much of his broad but fragile legacy on everything from foreign policy to climate change to health care.
It’s no surprise, then, that Obama’s speech on behalf of Clinton in this crucial swing state was comprised largely of two things: a prideful look back, and a wrathful ridicule of Trump, whose name he deigned to mention only four times in almost 50 minutes.
The first part was more entertaining. Obama said that Trump “doesn’t have the temperament, or the judgment, or the knowledge—or, apparently, the desire to obtain the knowledge—or the basic honesty that a president needs to have.” Of the video in which Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women, he said, “You don’t have to be a husband or a father to hear what we heard just a few days ago and say, that’s not right. You just have to be a decent human being to say, that’s not right.”
Obama said that tweeting and soundbites don’t qualify one for the presidency, and he made fun of Trump for saying a bad mic accounted for his poor performance in the first presidential debate. He quipped, “I also don’t know a lot of casino operators who manage to lose almost a billion dollars in a year.” He said Trump’s comments would disqualify him from working at 7-Eleven.
“You watch these debates, and everybody is all like, well—the commentators afterwards, they are all like, well, she was really maybe explaining some stuff in great detail in contrast to the other candidate,” he said. “That’s because she actually knows what she’s talking about. Which is helpful, when you’re president of the United States, to know what you’re talking about. C’mon, people. Come on. This isn’t an audition for some show. This ain’t a show.”
He also appeared to take a swipe at House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has torturedly announced he will not defend or campaign for Trump in the wake of the video, but has not changed his official stance of backing the GOP nominee.
“Now you’ve got people saying, ‘Well, we strongly disapprove, we really disagree, we find those comments disgusting, but we’re still endorsing him, we still think he should be president’—that doesn’t make sense to me,” Obama said. Surreally, he alluded to the conspiracy-theorizing radio host Alex Jones, who recently said Obama and Clinton were demons who smelled of sulfur. “Ain’t that something?” Obama laughed. (Several protesters interrupted the speech, perhaps inspired by Jones’s InfoWars, which is offering a bounty for people who say that Bill Clinton is a rapist. Obama first grinned, and later heckled back: “Here’s the deal: Try to get your own rally.”)
The danger of the Obama tour-de-force stump speech is that it threatens to overshadow his would-be successor. As the crowd surged out, someone behind me said, “I miss him already.” “Another eight years, please,” a friend replied.
If that was the entertaining section of the night, the passages focused on legacy were more interesting. Obama had jokes there, too. “No wonder I’ve gone gray, because we’ve been busy,” he said, capping off a list of accomplishments. He quipped that he and Michelle are “already looking around making sure we haven’t broken any china or messed anything up, Bo and Sunny haven’t ruined any of the carpets. Because we want to get our security deposit back.”
There was a wistful mood in the air, and not just because it was the end of a president’s term, but because it was the end of this president’s term, this black president. The crowd of 7,700—with another 1,500 in an overflow space—was heavily African American, with a strong contingent from North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black college in the city, whose band performed the National Anthem, and whose most famous alumnus, Jesse Jackson, was campaigning elsewhere in the state for Clinton. Before his speech, Obama had conducted a town hall at North Carolina A&T hosted by The Undefeated, ESPN’s race-interested website.
In part by virtue of its large black population and North Carolina A&T’s presence, Greensboro was an important center of civil-rights activism. In 1960, four North Carolina A&T students launched a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. The site is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. (In September, Trump asked to host an event at the museum and was refused.)
During his first run for president, Obama seemed poised to achieve many of the goals that activists like the Greensboro Four had first set. It was a mantle that he explicitly took up, calling himself a member of the “Joshua Generation.” As in: Moses got the Hebrews out of Egypt and nearly to the Promised Land, but he couldn’t cross over the Jordan. That task was left to Joshua.
“The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side,” Obama said in Selma, Alabama, in March 2007. “So the question, I guess, that I have today is what’s called of us in this Joshua generation?” The not-yet-gray Obama viewed himself as part of the youth movement. He went on:
A hope gap that still pervades too many communities all across the country and right here in Alabama. So the question is, then, what are we, the Joshua generation, doing to close those gaps? Are we doing every single thing that we can do in Congress in order to make sure that early education is adequately funded and making sure that we are raising the minimum wage so people can have dignity and respect?
Are we ensuring that, if somebody loses a job, that they're getting retrained? And that, if they've lost their health care and pension, somebody is there to help them get back on their feet? Are we making sure we're giving a second chance to those who have strayed and gone to prison but want to start a new life? Government alone can't solve all those problems, but government can help. It's the responsibility of the Joshua generation to make sure that we have a government that is as responsive as the need that exists all across America. That brings me to one other point, about the Joshua generation, and that is this—that it's not enough just to ask what the government can do for us—it's important for us to ask what we can do for ourselves.
Today, the young senator’s words seem in places prophetic and in other places naively optimistic. To many Americans, of both colors, the fact of Obama’s election 20 months after this speech was a symbol of progress; some even believed that they showed that the United States had solved a race problem that predated the republic. Obama’s election was a milestone, but it’s clear today how far the nation is from post-racialism.
By many standards, black Americans are much better off than they were eight years ago. Yet black unemployment remains far higher than white unemployment. Early education gaps have not been closed. There has been no increase in the federal minimum wage. The Affordable Care Act helped plug some holes in insurance, but even its champions view it as a flawed work in progress. The Voting Rights Law that Obama celebrated in Selma on that 2007 day was eviscerated by the Supreme Court in 2013. Meanwhile, the nation is regularly captivated by the spectacle of police shooting African American men—not a new phenomenon by any means, but one that is newly visible to the entire nation—and the assertion that “black lives matter” is somehow controversial. Trump continues to conflate “inner cities” with ’60s-style squalor.
Many of these problems are outside the scope of any president. But because of his experience, Obama could address black issues in a way no white president could. The next president will not be an African American, and no one knows when there might be another. Trump has gone so far as to say that there will not be another one “for generations” because of backlash to Obama.
Before the event began, I walked around the line, talking to African American voters. They expressed a mixture of appreciation for Obama with a sense that his potential accomplishments had been stymied by political resistance and bad timing, entering office in the midst of a historic recession. While most of the people I spoke with were eager to vote for Clinton, if largely due to opposition to Trump, they were circumspect about what she might accomplishment on civil-rights issues.
“The biggest thing about his legacy is that racism was more exposed,” said Nikolaus Knight, a 19-year-old North Carolina A&T student who wore a T-shirt reading “Unapologetically black.” “It’s something that’s always existed. It was exposed when an African American male was put in a position of power. People like to say that racial tension grew. It didn’t grow. It was exposed.”
Knight hoped to see Clinton push hard on police accountability, and he wanted her to help HBCUs. As for her 1990s support for the crime bill her husband signed and her remarks about “superpredators,” Knight said, “Now that she has acknowledged that she said those things, and acknowledged that she was wrong, she has a chance to make amends.”
Nepri James, another 19-year-old North Carolina A&T student, recounted hearing the Mothers of the Movement speak on behalf of Clinton. “She’s asking good questions, but what we need to know is if she’ll take action,” James said. “If we push it, she will,” her classmate Tayanna Lee replied.
Older voters tended to give Obama more leeway. “He’s done the best he could do. He could have done more if the situation was better,” said Bil Lewis of Raleigh. Fred Bellamy said the president left behind a great legacy on civil rights. “A lot of African Americans felt because we had an African American president, we’d achieve change overnight,” the Greensboro resident said. “Donald Trump needs to understand this: You don’t become president and do what you want to, even if it is good.”
Standing beside him, his friend Ezekiel Ben-Israel practically did a spit take at the notion that Obama left a great legacy. He said Obamacare was an important accomplishment, but that was about it. Not that Ben-Israel laid all the blame on president. In his 2007 speech, Obama asked, “Are we doing every single thing that we can do in Congress in order to make sure that early education is adequately funded and making sure that we are raising the minimum wage so people can have dignity and respect?” In practice, he’d found a Congress that often had no interest in working with him.
“Boehner spoke in the same vein as George Wallace,” Ben-Israel. “When he said ‘Hell no,’ I saw George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.” But Ben-Israel wasn’t convinced that bipartisanship would be much help either, saying the biggest bipartisan agreement that came to mind was NAFTA, which “sucked the jobs out of the country.” Anyway, he was skeptical that a Clinton victory would—to borrow Obama’s phrase—break the fever among Republicans: “If I shoot right into a bucket of snakes, they’re not going to stop being snakes just because I put an arrow into them.”
Sandra Smith, who wore an old-school “HOPE” T-shirt to the rally, felt similarly. “What he had to work with was very little. Everything he wanted, they said so because he wanted it,” she said, and doubted Clinton would have more luck if she won: “They’re not going to look at it as male vs. female, they’re not going to look at it color-wise, they’re going to look at it as a party thing.”
Little of Obama’s speech was explicitly pitched at black voters, but in practice, the intended audience was clear. Democrats believe that if minority turnout is high enough, it can produce a Democratic victory, as it did in 2008, and they’ve focused on registering more black and Hispanic voters. They were aided by a federal-court ruling in July that overturned a state law restricting early voting and registration as well as requiring photo ID. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the law had been intended to suppress minority votes.
The warm-up speakers on Tuesday included a slate of African American politicians, as well as Senate candidate Deborah Ross. Obama himself was introduced by Henry Frye, a North Carolina A&T grad who in 1968 became North Carolina’s first black legislator since Reconstruction, and later the first black justice on the state Supreme Court. Frye described how, as an Air Force veteran, he was in 1956 refused the right to register to vote.
During his remarks, Obama deployed his masterful, oft-remarked-upon command of code-switching. The closest he came to making the pitch explicit came near the end. “I promise you, your vote matters,” Obama said:
Read up on your history. You just heard from Judge Frye. There was a time, right here in North Carolina … when folks had to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. The number of bubbles on a bar of soap. It wasn’t that long ago where folks were beaten to register voters in Mississippi. It wasn’t that long ago that a man like Justice Frye, who had already graduated college, was denied the right to vote because he failed the so-called literacy test. That just happened. And the reason it changed was because young people said it’s going to change. And folks risked everything so we could pull that lever. Freedom Riders came down so that people could have the right to vote.
His imprecation against youth apathy echoed a concern he voiced in the Joshua generation speech. “Imagine young people, 16, 17, 20, 21, backs straight, eyes clear, suit and tie, sitting down at a lunch counter,” he said then. “I can’t say for certain that we have instilled that same sense of moral clarity and purpose in this generation.”
However disillusioned the last eight years may have left Obama about his ability to bring epochal change, he seemed to have a rosier view about the youngest adults. “The young people I meet, they are more tolerant, and they are more sophisticated, and they are more interested in the world,” he said. “And when I meet young people, as strange as this seems, I see the values that my mom and my grandparents tried to instill in me—decent, honest, hardworking, civil, courteous, polite, yes ma’am, no ma’am, how can I help you, ma’am.”
Two hours earlier, I’d been talking with North Carolina A&T student Natalie Presley. She was, as Obama said, sophisticated, polite, and engaged. When I asked her what impact Obama had had on civil rights, she answered the question not in terms of what he’d accomplished in office, but in terms of his symbolic importance. “His legacy is that he’s paved the road for black young men and women, showing they’re capable and can run for office,” she said.
In other words, Presley viewed Obama not as the vanguard of some new generation, but as another important forebear, laying out the path. Whatever the rest of his legacy, the sense among young people that the president remains on the other side of the River Jordan, and that they are the true Joshua generation that must take up the banner now, seems like a bittersweet validation of his words nearly a decade ago.