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Former President Barack Obama Democratic National Convention Speech Analysis

Former President Barack Obama delivered an unsparing attack on President Donald Trump at the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 19, accusing his successor of using the nation’s highest office to help himself and his friends, and treating the presidency like a “reality show” to get “the attention he craves.” Speaking from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia under the convention night’s theme of “A more perfect union,” Obama accused Trump of failing to take the job seriously, resulting in a massive death toll due to the pandemic, job, and economic losses, and the diminished US standing around the world. “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,” Obama told a national prime-time audience. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe: 170,000 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,” Obama said.

Former President Barack Obama’s remarks were his sharpest and most direct attacks on President Donald Trump since leaving office after two terms in 2017. It represents the latest evolution of the former President’s decision to go harder on President Donald Trump as the election approaches. And just as Trump has upended many norms in the office, Obama’s speech reflects a decision to dispense with the long-standing tradition that has largely had former Presidents remain silent about their successors. Obama was under no illusions that Trump, upon taking over, would continue with his policies or embrace his vision of the country. But Obama said he hoped “for the sake of the country” that Trump would take the job seriously and feel the weight of the office and have some reverence “for the democracy that had been placed in his care.” “But he never did,” the former president said. In anticipation of Obama’s criticism, Trump said at a White House news conference earlier Wednesday that his Democratic predecessor was “bad” and “ineffective.” “President Obama did not do a good job, and the reason I am here is because of President Obama and Joe Biden,” Trump told reporters. “Because if they did a good job, I wouldn’t be here, and probably if they did a good job, I wouldn’t have even run. I would have been very happy, I enjoyed my previous life very much. But they did such a bad job that I stand before you as president,” Trump said.

Vouching for the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, Joe Biden, the former Delaware senator who former President Barack Obama tapped to be his running mate in 2008, Obama said that in his search for a vice-presidential candidate, “I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother.” “Joe and I came from different places and different generations. But what I quickly came to admire about Joe Biden is his resilience, born of too much struggle; his empathy, born of too much grief,” Obama said. “Joe is a man who learned early on to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him: ‘No one’s better than you, Joe, but you’re better than nobody,’” the former president said. “That empathy, that decency, that belief that everybody counts, that’s who Joe is.” Biden, Obama said, “made me a better president” and has got “the character and the experience to make us a better country.”

It was former President Barack Obama’s fifth consecutive address to the Democratic National Convention, the first occurring in 2004 when he delivered the keynote speech in Boston as a senatorial from Illinois. That speech, seeking unity, and denying a pundit-driven divide between “red states” and “blue states” and “liberal America” and “conservative America,” was widely regarded as propelling him to the White House four years later. Seeking to bestow his continued popularity among Democrats on behalf of Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, Obama said both have the ability to “lead this country out of dark times and build it back better.” Of Biden’s choice of Harris, Obama called her an “ideal partner, who is more than prepared for the job, someone who knows what it’s like to overcome barriers and someone who has spent their career fighting to help others live out their American Dream.” Together, Obama said, Biden and Harris “believe that no one, including the president, is above the law, and that no public official, including the president, should use their office to enrich themselves or their supporters. The former President urged the public, particularly the younger generation, to reject Trump and Republicans “who are counting on your cynicism.” “They know they can’t win you over with their policies, so they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote and convince you that your vote does not matter. That is how they win,” he said.

Even as he promoted Biden’s candidacy, former President Barack Obama warned, “No single American can fix this country alone. Not even a president.” “So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace our own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy,” he said. “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down, if that’s what it takes for them to win,” Obama said. “So we have to get busy building it up by pouring all our efforts into these 76 days and voting like never before, for Joe and Kamala, and candidates up and down the ticket, so that we leave no doubt about what this country that we love stands for today and for all our days to come.”

David Axelrod, who served as former President Barack Obama’s top political strategist, said critics who think the former president is “fighting to protect his ‘legacy’” misread him and the moment. “He’s fighting to protect our democracy against the assault of a @POTUS who, unlike his predecessors of EITHER party, simply doesn’t believe in its rules, laws, norms or institutions,” tweeted Axelrod, using the acronym for president of the United States to refer to Trump. Obama has become more strident toward Trump and his presidency in recent months, publicly criticizing his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and telling donors in remarks leaked to the New York Times that the President played on “nativist, racist, sexist” fears. Delivering the eulogy for the late civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, in Atlanta on July 30, Obama did not use Trump’s name but decried the actions of his administration on issues of race and voting. “George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” Obama said. He was referring to the late former racist governor and third-party segregationist Presidential candidate from Alabama. “But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”

Former President Barack Obama showed his disdain for then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 race for President when Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, vied against the Republican to be his successor. Trump had adopted the “birther” conspiracy that wrongly claimed Obama was born in Kenya. Trump as president later pushed what he called “Obamagate,” claiming an illegal conspiracy by Obama-era officials to investigate and sabotage his presidency. That prompted Obama to become more active in the 2018 midterm elections. Speaking at the University of Illinois in Urbana in September of that year, Obama called Trump “a symptom, not the cause” of “a fear and an anger that’s rooted in our past” involving racial and economic divisions that have been exploited by politicians for years. “Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us, or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do — that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time. And, in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work,” Obama said.

Matthew Rose
Matt studies and analyzes politics at all levels. He is the creator of, a scholarly resource exploring political trends, political theory, political economy, philosophy, and more. He hopes that his articles can encourage more people to gain knowledge about politics and understand the impact that public policy decisions have on their lives. Matt is also involved in the preservation of recorded sound through IASA International Bibliography of Discographies, and is an avid record collector.


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