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.