How Will Obama's Message Play in Trump's America?

The former president reprised his favorite themes of hope and unity in his return to the campaign trail on Thursday.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

RICHMOND, Va.— The event had all the trappings of a vintage Obama rally. There was the bouncy Motown soundtrack; the chants of “yes we can”; the call-and-response with a crowd of die-hards—Fired up, and ready to go!—for whom seeing Barack Obama in the flesh seemed to stir emotions akin to a religious experience.

And, of course, there was that hallmark of Obama’s rhetoric—audacious, unavoidable, dripping from every syllable of the former president’s speech: Hope.

“Look, I’ve been in this arena for a while,” Obama told a crowd of thousands at a campaign rally for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam Thursday night. American politics might be “depressing” now, “but what I also know is that as frustrated as you get … there are people all across this country who want to do things better.” After all, he reminded them, “I’ve seen the possibilities of our democracy.”

Obama’s return to the campaign trail Thursday, which included stops in New Jersey and Virginia, was timed to boost a pair of Democratic candidates in competitive races. But for a party in exile and a country in turmoil, the reemergence of a popular former president with a broad base of loyal supporters could have implications that reach far beyond two battleground states. What remains to be seen is whether the iconic message of hope and healing that propelled Obama to the presidency nearly a decade ago can still have anything like the same effect on the voters of Donald Trump’s America.

From the moment he stepped onto the stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama has infused his speeches with a kind of defiant optimism. It is the signature trait of his oratory—maybe even of his entire presidency—and it’s part of what first made him such a phenomenon on the campaign trail. “In the unlikely story that is America,” he once said, in perhaps his most memorable speech, “there has never been anything false about hope.”

Of course, there were moments during the Obama presidency when that thesis was tested, and his buoyant, upbeat message didn’t always resonate perfectly with Americans. But trying to pull it off now—in the midst of what feels like a national nervous breakdown—is to risk coming off as downright delusional. No one in American politics is talking about hope and unity anymore. They are talking about resistance and conquest; victory and defeat; all or nothing, us or them, and to hell with anyone who picks the wrong side.

And yet, here was Barack Obama, in a Richmond convention center on a Thursday night in 2017, playing the old hits as if nothing at all had changed. His collar open, his smile broad, he reminisced warmly about the humble beginnings of his long-shot presidential bid, and reminded his audience of how Americans had united around the country’s shared ideals.

He did take time to bemoan the state of U.S. politics, but he generally avoided framing the problems in partisan terms. “We live in a time when all sorts of forces conspire to turn good people off of politics,” Obama said. “The way we get our news. The way money floods into our campaign. The way … our candidates are rewarded for pandering to the extremes instead of trying to keep common ground and forging consensus.”

Obama did not mention Trump by name in his remarks, and his one clear reference to the 45th president came in the form of a cautionary tale about the importance of fostering national unity. “If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you aren’t going to be able to govern,” he said.

Toward the end of his speech, Obama turned his attention to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville over the summer.

“We saw what happened in Charlottesville,” he said. “But we also saw what happened after Charlottesville, when the biggest gatherings of all rejected fear and rejected hate, and the decency and goodwill of the American people came out. That’s how we rise. We don’t rise up by repeating the past. We rise up by learning from the past and listening to each other.”

Just as in 2008, Obama never acknowledged the irony of equating support for his partisan cause with the embrace of unity. And just as in 2008, the crowd that packed in to hear him loved him for it.

After he exited the stage to an ear-splitting ovation, I asked several attendees about their impressions of the speech. They used words like “inspiring” and “uplifting,” and invariably they talked about how much they missed his presence in the White House. Many of them seemed genuinely touched, and all of them promised they would be at the polls next month.

A black rally-goer named Love Mack (she declined to give her full name because her husband is in the military, stationed at a nearby base) told me that the months since Obama left office had been “terrifying” for her family. She said she lives in regular fear of how Trump’s unpredictable approach to geopolitics might end up affecting her husband. “We don’t know if it’s going to be World War III just because he doesn’t understand his words have consequences.”

When I asked Mack if Obama’s words had reassured her at all, she seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Honestly,” she told me, “after the election, I was questioning everyone who wasn’t my race. I could not understand how Trump won. You know, how many people really think like he does? Because he ran on a platform of hate, and people voted for that.” But the diverse turnout that night had given her hope. “This is the first time [since the election] that I’ve been in a room with a mixed-race crowd and actually felt like maybe we were all on the same page,” she said. “Like, maybe these people don’t hate me.”

After the rally, people spilled out of the convention center and onto the sidewalks, chattering happily with each other while vendors sold them pins celebrating Colin Kaepernick and t-shirts featuring Obama’s face next to the words, “Y’ALL MISS ME YET!!!” The mood was cheerful and friendly, like a church barbecue.

But once they said goodbye and began ambling down the dark street toward their cars, the Obama-induced high seemed to recede as reality set in. It was still October 2017, just nine months into what could be an eight-year Trump presidency. The commander in chief was still culture-warring with black football players. White nationalists were still on the march. The local TV airwaves were still filled with ugly attack ads, and the never-ending campaign that now comprises our national politics was still just as tribal and toxic as ever.

Waiting at a crosswalk a couple blocks from the convention center, a trio of young professionals still carrying their “Northam for Governor” signs sounded deflated as they talked about the gubernatorial race, and how distant they felt from the other half of their state, the other half of their country.

“How do they see the world so differently?” one of the men wondered. “I just don’t get it.” There was a pause in the conversation, and then he sighed. “I know they’re saying the same thing about me.”