Barack Obama didn’t try to inspire Americans tonight: He wanted to scare them.
The former president offered no thousand-watt smiles or soaring rhetoric as he exhorted voters to elect Joe Biden and warned them about the perils of giving Donald Trump another four years in the White House. In a stark, sober address from Philadelphia during the virtual Democratic National Convention, a man elected a dozen long years ago on a gauzy promise of “hope and change” found himself instead turning to fear as a rallying cry.
“Do not let them take away your power,” Obama said. “Don’t let them take away your democracy.”
Devoid of an audience and its usual rapturous applause, Obama sounded at times like a disappointed father, his sighs audible as he delivered a speech he never thought he’d give. Donald Trump was once a joke to Obama, a “carnival barker” who he famously mocked at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as Trump sat and watched with a frozen smile. The humor in Trump has been gone for a while now, but for his first few years out of office, Obama held back on his successor as he kept away from the near-daily controversies and scandals emanating from the White House.
That restraint ended initially when Obama campaigned for Democratic congressional candidates in 2018. And last month in Atlanta, he used his eulogy for the late Representative John Lewis of Georgia to assail—without naming the president—Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service and other efforts at voter suppression. He took him on much more directly tonight, and more aggressively than any ex-president has criticized his successor in recent political memory. “For close to four years now,” Obama said, “he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”