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.”
He went on: “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. One hundred and seventy thousand Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
What was striking about Obama’s argument, however, was how little it was grounded in the traditional policy battles of the past decade. Though he ticked off a rapid-fire summation of the progressive Biden-Harris agenda, Obama did not tell Americans that Trump would take away their health care, or ignore climate change, or deport immigrants, or even threaten national security. His warning was far more existential. If Biden is telling voters that “the soul of America” is on the ballot, Obama told them that its very system of government is at risk. “This administration,” he said, “has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
Nor did Obama conclude his speech with the uplifting peroration that has been his trademark. He summoned the legacy of Lewis and the civil-rights movement, but he withheld his typical reassurance that despite everything, the best of America would win out. “Any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election,” he said.
For all of Obama’s reliance on hope and inspiration as motivators in the past, fear has always worked just as well, if not better, at turning out votes. And he was never as effective at getting people to vote when he was not on the ballot as he was during his two presidential campaigns: Democrats stayed home in both midterm elections during his tenure, and the coalition that elected him was unable to lift Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. So it would not be a surprise if Obama thought he needed to up the ante to help rally the Democratic base for Biden.
But as Obama railed against the “cynicism” that he said Trump was relying on to win, and then as he recalled the sacrifices of those who were spit on and beaten as they fought for the right to vote, he seemed almost on the verge of tears. It didn’t seem like an act. If the former president hadn’t previously seen the need to tear into Trump for the sake of the country, what are Democrats to make of the fact that now, apparently, he does? Obama, suddenly a gray-haired father figure to his party, no longer sounded merely disappointed—he seemed frightened.