Twelve years to the day that as a young Illinois state senator he captivated Democrats by embracing the “politics of hope,” President Barack Obama on Wednesday enraptured another political convention — this time reasserting his vision after eight years in the White House.
“I was filled with faith — faith in America,” Obama said, recalling his breakout speech at the 2004 convention. Now, he insisted, “I am more optimistic about the future of American than ever before.”
He wasn’t a future candidate, a presidential nominee or a president seeking re-election. He was a man looking to protect his legacy by entrusting it to his one-time rival, former secretary of state and chosen successor: Hillary Clinton.
“Nothing truly prepares you for the demands of the Oval Office. Until you’ve sat at that desk, you don’t know what it’s like to manage a global crisis or send young people to war,” Obama said. “But Hillary’s been in the room. She’s been part of those decisions.”
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“Even in the middle of crisis,” he added, “she listens to people, and keeps her cool, and treats everybody with respect. And no matter how daunting the odds, no matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits.”
Once Obama finished, Clinton appeared at the convention in person for the first time. She gave Obama a bear hug, held his hand and waved. The nominee wisely chose to schedule the charismatic president’s speech on a different night from her own.
Obama closed the third night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia holding the unusual position of being an outgoing president whose popularity is on the rise. He’s campaigning one more time — not for himself, but for how history will judge him.
“Change is never easy, never quick,” Obama conceded. “We won’t meet all of our challenges in one term or one presidency or even in one lifetime.”
“Four more years!” someone yelled from the rafters of the arena, which was rocking.
He backed Clinton and vouched for her foreign-policy experience — as Vice President Joe Biden and Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, did earlier in the night. Delivered in the span of two hours, their three speeches had a cumulative effect of bolstering Clinton’s credentials — and ripping her Republican opponent, Donald Trump.
“It’s fair to say this is not your typical election. It’s not just a choice between parties and policies, the usual debate between left and right,” Obama said. “This is a more fundamental choice about who we are as a people.” (In an unscripted moment, he later added: “People outside the United States do not understand what’s going on with this election.”)
The two-term president contrasted Democrats’ three days in Philadelphia with last week’s Republican convention.
“What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision about a country where we turn against each other, and we turn against the reset of the world,” he said. “That is not the America I know. The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous.”
He acknowledged the “anxieties” fueling Trump’s rise. But Obama mocked Trump as outright unqualified for the job.
“The Donald is not really a plans guy. Not really a facts guy, either,” Obama said. “I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill — more qualified than Hillary Clinton.”
At times, Obama’s speech felt as a farewell to his presidency.
“The Democratic Party is in good hands,” he said. “My time in this office hasn’t fixed everything; as much as we’ve done, there’s still so much I want to do. But for all the tough lessons I’ve had to learn, for all the places I’ve fallen short, I’ve told Hillary — and I’ll tell you what’s picked me back up, every single time: Time and again, you’ve picked me up.
“I hope, sometimes, I picked you up, too.”
Kaine, a Virginia senator, accepted the vice presidential nomination — made earlier in the day through acclamation — amid a smattering of interruptions from loyalists of Clinton primary rival Bernie Sanders, who had hoped for a more liberal running mate.
“Somos americanos todos,” Kaine said in Spanish he learned as Roman Catholic missionary in Honduras. Clinton, he said, is “lista” — “because what listo means in Spanish this: It means is prepared, it means battle-tested, it means rock-solid, up for anything, never backing down.”
Introducing himself to many voters for the first time, Kaine mentioned his father-in-law, a former Republican governor of Virginia, who was sitting inside the convention hall.
“Linwood Holton, he’s still a Republican,” Kaine said. “But he’s voting for a lot of Democrats these days, an awful lot of Democrats because any party that would nominate Donald Trump for president has moved too far away from his party of Lincoln. And if any of you are looking for that party of Lincoln, we’ve got a home for you right here in the Democratic Party.”
Kaine hollered to Sanders, a Senate colleague he called “a great leader.” Then, ad-libbing to Sanders’ fans, he added: “We all should feel the Bern — and we all should not want to get burned by the other guy!”
Then Kaine turned to Trump, the way vice presidential nominees must do to go after the top of the rival ticket.
“You know who I don’t trust? Donald Trump. The guy promises a lot. But you might have noticed, he has a habit of saying the same two words right after he makes his biggest promises. You guys know the words I mean?” Kaine said before imitating Trump’s signature tenor. “‘Believe me.’”
It was at that point that Kaine — who at first appeared more nervous than he had when Clinton presented him last Saturday at Miami’s Florida International University — started hitting a stride.
“It’s gonna be great — ‘believe me!’ We’re gonna build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — ‘believe me!’ We’re gonna destroy ISIS so fast — ‘believe me!’ There’s nothing suspicious in my tax returns — ‘believe me!’”
He used Trump’s business dealings as an example of the New York builder’s untrustworthiness.
“Retirees and families in Florida believed Donald Trump when he said he’d build them condos,” Kaine said, apparently referring to a failed Trump development in Fort Lauderdale. “They paid their deposits, but the condos were never built. He just pocketed their money and walked away. They lost tens of thousands of dollars, all because they believed Donald Trump.”
Kaine faced the unenviable job of speaking after Biden, who owned the room after entering to perhaps the most coveted musical choice of the convention: “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme music of the film “Rocky.” Biden, who came close last year to running for the presidency himself, evidently relished showing up for the fight.
Calling the Obamas “family,” Biden praised the first lady’s Monday convention speech — “Michelle, I don’t know where ya are, kid, but you’re incredible” — and declared the president “the embodiment of honor, resolve and character — one of the finest presidents we have ever had.” He trumpeted Clinton as the “one person in this race who will be there, who has always been there for you.”
Yet it was clear that what the unleashed Biden wanted to do was unload on Trump.
“Just hear me a second without booing or cheering,” Biden began, bringing the rowdy hall under control with his hushed tones, spoken as if he were sharing a secret. “His cynicism is unbounded. His lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in a phrase that I suspect he’s most proud of having made famous: ‘You’re fired.’”
“How can there be pleasure in saying, ‘You’re fired?’” Biden repeated. “He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break. That’s a bunch of malarkey.
“This guy doesn’t have a clue about the middle class. He has no clue about what makes America great,” Biden thundered. “Actually, he has no clue, period.”
Biden gave the sort of Trump takedown speech former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried to give before him. But Panetta lost some of his sting as protesters stepped on his remarks with chants of, “No more war!” Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Hutson, who spoke before Panetta, got similarly jeered.
Not so for Biden, who was embraced by the raucous crowd as “Joe!”
“No major party nominee in the history of this nation has known less,” Biden asserted. We cannot elect a man who exploits our fears, who has no plan whatsoever to make us safer. A man who embraces the tactics of our enemies — torture, religious intolerance. We all know. Even Republicans know: That’s not who we are.”