On Wednesday, President Barack Obama delivered a keynote at the Democratic National Convention and, as widely expected, brought the house down. Obama is a terrific orator in any setting, but he’s never better than when he’s got a sympathetic audience. He had one at the DNC, but that wasn’t necessarily a given. The Wikileaks hack and Bernie bro protests had disrupted the narrative that Democrats hoped for at the week’s outset: one of Hillary Clinton’s unquestionable competence and confidence.
A solid lineup of presenters (and one world class speech from Michelle Obama) had gone a long way towards righting the ship, and Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s surprisingly affable, personable delivery could warm even the coolest heart. That, plus a mushy tribute video of Obama’s greatest hits, made the audience wet clay in the President’s hands. And while Obama delivered in his usual polished, rousing fashion, he snuck some surprising themes into the speech, and none more surprising than the overtures toward Republicans. As conservative pundit Erick Erickson put it, the speech “read like a Party of Reagan Republican response to Donald Trump’s nomination speech last week.” It wasn’t pandering, or even terribly obvious, but it was definitely implied throughout: Hillary Clinton will be better for Republicans than Donald Trump.
“I was so young that first time, in Boston,” Obama began. “Maybe a little nervous addressing such a big crowd. But I was filled with faith. Faith in America, the generous, bighearted, hopeful country that made my story — indeed, all of our stories — possible. I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your President, to tell you I am even more optimistic about the future of America.”
He lavished praise on Hillary Clinton, ostensibly the purpose of the entire convention, “There has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill, nobody — more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America,” he said. That’s a good line (if a debatable one), and Obama gave a relatively detailed explanation of how closely he and Clinton had worked together on a number of key decisions in his presidency, including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But perhaps even more forceful than his endorsement of Clinton was Obama’s withering analysis of Donald Trump’s readiness for the office. “He’s not really a plans guy,” Obama said, “Not really a facts guy, either. He calls himself a business guy, which is true, but I have to say, I know plenty of businessmen and women who’ve achieved success without leaving a trail of lawsuits, and unpaid workers and people feeling like they got cheated. Does anyone really believe that a guy who’s spent his seventy years on this earth showing no regard for working people is suddenly going to be your champion? Your voice? If so, you should vote for him.”
Obama has rarely sounded as dismissive and incredulous as he did on Wednesday night, seeming almost annoyed at even having to make the case that Trump isn’t the man for the job. But he did so in a sly way, drawing a clear line between Republican policies and Trump’s policies. What he had heard at the Republican National Convention “wasn’t particularly Republican — and it sure wasn’t conservative,” Obama said. No, it was “a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems — just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger and hate. And that is not the America I know.”
It was a role reversal from just a few years ago, in which Trump was making headlines for accusing Obama of being born in Kenya. In Obama’s speech, Trump is the one who’s un-American.
But as is Obama’s wont, he had a grander vision in mind for his speech than mere pragmatism.
In tone, the speech had something of a conservative spirit to it — invoking American exceptionalism, bipartisan cooperation and even quoting Ronald Reagan’s famed “shining city on a hill” line. The clear message: America is already great. It was rousing and inspirational, and it was a serious reach into Republican territory. The Democrats can smell Republican votes on the table; they know how many conservatives are disillusioned by their party’s nominee. Obama’s gamble — though not quite as blatant as Trump’s appeal to disaffected Bernie supporters — was to convince those conservatives that Clinton would welcome them with open arms.
He referenced his Kansas grandparents (another dig at Trump’s birther conspiracies), saying they “believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab.” And that those principles “attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe …why our military can look the way it does, every shade of humanity, forged into common service …why anyone who threatens our values, whether Fascists or Communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
This final knock against Trump may have been the most jarring, freely associating him with jihadists and Fascists, but the crowd ate it up. Even conservatives seemed shocked.
“That is America,” Obama said. “That is America. Those bonds of affection, that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it, we embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own. That’s what Hillary Clinton understands— this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot. That’s the America she’s fighting for.”
In a surprise move, Clinton joined Obama on stage for a hug and some clapping and waving, which made for one of the better photo ops Democrats will get this election cycle. But the really important work had already been done: Obama threaded the difficult needle of explaining something that he clearly feels is self-evident: Donald Trump cannot be President. His case was solid. He also delivered a hopeful, optimistic contrast to Trump’s gloomy, Mad Max: Fury Road inspired vision of the future. It was a necessary contrast if an obvious one for Obama to make.
But for many voters, the question is not whether or not Trump would make a good President; it’s whether or not Hillary Clinton would be a better one. Clinton has some work to do in winning over the unconvinced, and her missteps (like hiring Debbie Wasserman Schultz onto the campaign before the ink was even dry on her resignation as the DNC chair) haven’t made it any easier. But after Wednesday night, if she can’t defeat Trump, she’ll have only herself to blame.