WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former President Barack Obama painted an unsparing portrait of American democracy on the brink if President Donald Trump wins in November in a scathing address Wednesday that his successor is both unfit for office and apathetic to the nation’s founding principles.
“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” Obama said in unflinching remarks on the third night of the Democratic convention. He spoke from Philadelphia.
Obama’s address amounted to one of the most sweeping condemnations ever of a sitting president by one of his predecessors. It was aimed squarely at jolting Democrats ahead of the November election.
Through much of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been restrained in his public comments, hewing to the tradition of former Oval Office occupants giving space to the current commander in chief. Yet he has become more pointed in his criticism in recent months, and his remarks Wednesday revealed the full extent of his personal disregard for the current president.
Trump, who appeared to be watching in real time, responded with all-caps tweets, questioning why Obama waited until after the Democratic presidential primary was over to endorse Biden.
Democrats see Obama as a bridge to some younger voters in the 2020 race, someone who can speak both to Biden’s character and to the urgency of progressives pushing for more sweeping change to the nation’s economic and domestic policies.
He called out in particular to young people who took to the streets of American cities earlier this year to protest police, casting them as the heirs to the legacy of civil rights leaders such as Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who died earlier this summer.
“You can give our democracy new meaning,” he said. “You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.”
Obama cast Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, as well positioned to help that younger generation of activists power through many of the changes they seek. Yet there is an inherent tension in Obama, whose own political rise was fueled by the power of barrier-breaking, generational change, touting Biden, a 77-year-old white man who has spent a career in politics, for the presidency.
With the general election now in full swing, Obama confidants say that while the former president’s support for Biden is unequivocal, he does worry about enthusiasm among younger voters, particularly younger voters of color. He’s well aware that one of the reasons Trump currently occupies the Oval Office is that those voters did not show up in the same large numbers in 2016 for Hillary Clinton as they did when he was on the ballot.
Obama spoke two nights after his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, headlined the opening night of the convention and delivered her own condemnation of Trump.
The fact that the Obamas were headliners on two of the four nights of the Democratic celebration speaks to the crucial role they have in helping Biden try to reassemble that coalition — and the challenge the Democratic Party has in building a new bench of other leaders who can do the same.
“When you think about folks who have the capacity to really unify us, there are only a few people,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee. “Certainly Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are among them.”