President Barack Obama sent a simple message Wednesday night: Yes, we still can.
Obama’s convention speech in Philadelphia framed the 2016 election in a very Obama way: the audacity of hope over the politics of fear, optimism over darkness, solutions over slogans, togetherness over division, a supremely qualified public servant in Hillary Clinton over an amateur-hour con artist in Donald Trump. America, he declared, is already great, and Clinton will make it greater.
The president gave a stirring but fundamentally defensive speech, fighting back against the Republican convention’s dystopic vision of America as a crime-infested, porous-bordered, militarily weak, economically stagnant hellscape that only Trump can fix. Where Trump sees chaos and decline, the president said, “I see engineers inventing stuff.” Trump may see a strongman in the mirror, but Obama scoffed, “We don’t look to be ruled.” Obama reprised the themes of the speech that catapulted him to fame at the 2004 convention, contrasting his vision of a unified America that rises above red-against-blue with Trump’s rhetoric of fear.
Obama also defended Clinton, a bit briefly but fiercely, describing her as a talented, tenacious fighter who’s been caricatured by the right and some of the left, “accused of everything you can imagine and some things you cannot.” And they embraced warmly when he was done.
But this was his night, even after Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, deftly introduced himself to the nation as a likable fellow while skewering Trump with a smile on his face, and Obama’s his own vice president, Joe Biden, thrilled the Democratic crowd with his indefatigable Biden-ness. Obama declared in his conclusion that he was “ready to pass the baton,” but his confident delivery served as a reminder that the baton is still in his hands.
1. Obama Defends the Obama Era: The president made a solid if somewhat stolid case for Clinton, comparing her to the proverbial Man in the Arena, reminding America that she has faced intense scrutiny for four decades. “She’s made mistakes, just like I have, just like we all do,” he said. “That’s what happens when you try.” He didn’t exactly suggest that he loves hanging out with his onetime Democratic rival — the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, worked much harder to humanize the nominee on Tuesday — but he did call her “a mother and grandmother who would do anything to help our children thrive” — and the most qualified candidate ever.
Obama spent much of his time outlining the progress of the country on his watch and contrasting it with Trump’s dyspeptic declinism. As he often does, he reminded Americans that the economy was in free-fall when he took office, and that unemployment, the federal deficit, the uninsured rate, veteran homelessness and oil imports have all plummeted on his watch, while the auto industry rebounded, Osama bin Laden was killed, and American troops came home from the battlefield. He heralded his nuclear deal with Iran, his opening to Cuba, his global climate agreement, his creation of a new agency to prevent financial ripoffs, and the legalization of gay marriage. “By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started,” Obama said.
But Obama also portrayed Trump as no ordinary Republican, attacking the GOP nominee’s convention in Cleveland as a festival of anger, resentment and pessimism that trafficked in hate, talked down America and yearned to withdraw from the world. He suggested that Trump’s America would be a place where you’re not welcome if English isn’t your native language or if you wear a hijab. “The America I know is full of courage, optimism and ingenuity,” Obama said. “It’s decent and generous.” He accused Trump of insulting the American military, turning his back on American allies and losing faith in America.
It’s become a cliché to say that the more optimistic candidate usually wins presidential elections, but there isn’t much doubt which party stands for optimism these days. Trump has tried to make November a referendum on the state of the country, describing America as a disaster area that only he can clean up. Obama essentially said: Bring it on.
“He’s selling the American people short,” Obama said. “We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order.”
2. Joe was Joe: Vice President Biden was his folksy self — in all his heart-on-his-sleeve, tongue-all-over-the-place, Middle-Class-Joe glory, combining his unique brand of chummy chat with a theatrical evisceration of Trump.
It’s always been easy to underestimate Biden, with his cornball affect and his motor-mouth verbal tics. His speech included a litany of Biden-isms — “literally,” “never, never, ever,” “I mean this sincerely,” “I’m deadly serious” — that have become a kind of running soundtrack in the White House. He called Michelle Obama “kid” and the president of the United States “Barack.” He gave an inexplicably random shout-out to “my buddy Chris Dodd.” But he also brought tears to many eyes with his emotional reminiscence of his late son Beau (“an incredibly fine man”) and with his recognition that so many families have endured heartbreak like his.
But Biden, who is not Clinton’s biggest fan in the White House, still gave a powerful endorsement of his rival as not only smart and tough but passionate about ordinary families, which is the ultimate endorsement in Bidenworld. And he delivered an efficiently brutal takedown of Trump as a cynical, empathy-deprived egomaniac who “doesn’t have a clue about the middle class,” which is the ultimate insult in Bidenworld, and inspired chants of “not a clue!” from the delighted crowd. Biden also pointed out that the catchphrase Trump delivers with such glee — “You’re fired” — is not the kind of thing that nice people enjoy saying. He scoffed that Trump is now running as a champion of ordinary people, prompting a classic Biden putdown: “That’s a bunch of malarkey!”
There will never be another Joe Biden in the White House. It’s kind of amazing that there was even one.
3. The Normal Party: Donald Trump is a chaos candidate, a flagrant breaker of taboos. He’s questioned Obama’s citizenship, attacked a federal judge’s Mexican heritage and waddled like a penguin to make fun of Mitt Romney. In one news conference on Wednesday, he stunned the national-security establishment by urging Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, suggested he might recognize Crimea as Russian territory and told a female reporter to “be quiet.” And his convention in Cleveland reflected his bird-flipping approach to politics, featuring head-scratching speakers like a “Duck Dynasty” star, the head of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the owner of a circus, interspersed with frequent chants of “Lock her up!”
The Democrats, to put it mildly, have taken a different approach. They’re trying to project a message of level-headed normality.
That was the message Clinton sent by hitching her wagon to Tim Kaine, who is widely viewed as calm and relentlessly normal. And after some initial drama over the resignation of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and some heckling by disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters, that’s been the subtext of Philadelphia. Nobody has suggested that Trump worships Lucifer, as Ben Carson suggested about Clinton. There have been no plagiarism scandals à la Melania Trump or public snubs by defeated candidates à la Ted Cruz. Last night, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, actually suggested that Americans should vote for Clinton because she is “sane.”
The Democratic mission was to look like a normal political party staging a normal political convention, and so far the mission has been accomplished.
4. Trust in Tim: If running mates are supposed to be attack dogs, Tim Kaine is a Pomeranian, a bit too cuddly, a bit too nice. But even Pomeranians can bite.
Kaine delivered for Clinton with a three-part speech, the first part devoted to his personal story as a trustworthy regular guy with a passion for social justice. He portrayed himself as an ordinary American — born in Minnesota, raised in Kansas City, educated by Jesuits. His parents ran a small business and “taught me about hard work, about kindness, and most importantly, faith.” He taught kids welding in Honduras and became a civil rights lawyer in Virginia. And then he became a politician, “listening to people learning about their lives, and trying to get results.”
After establishing his trustworthy bona fides, Kaine then argued that Clinton, who has struggled to persuade Americans to trust her, is cut from the same cloth. “I want to tell you why I trust Hillary Clinton,” he said. So Part 2 was about all the work Clinton has done to help children and families in public life, how she will do the right thing for immigrants, for minorities and for soldiers, like his son in the Marines.
It all led to Part 3, where Kaine slipped his stiletto of trust into Trump’s chest, noting that the Republican nominee’s two favorite words seem to be: “Believe me.” With a smile on his face, Kaine then made the case that it’s foolish to believe anything Trump says: that he’ll build a wall, that he’ll destroy ISIL, or that there’s nothing damning in the tax returns he refuses to release. He detailed how Trump has swindled creditors of his bankrupt casinos, students at Trump University, contractors — “companies just like my dad’s” — and charities he promised to help.
“Folks, you cannot believe one word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth,” Kaine said. “Our nation is too great to put it in the hands of a slick-talking, empty-promising, self-promoting, one-man wrecking crew.”
But he said it in a nice way.
5. The RSVP Gap: Vice President Biden didn’t even make prime time on Wednesday night, because his boss and his potential successor had to speak. It was a stark reminder of one crucial difference between the two conventions: The big Democrats almost all showed up in Philadelphia. A lot of big Republicans skipped Cleveland, creating a huge disparity in star power.
The GOP no-shows included former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, and 2016 candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina. The only prominent Democratic absentee was Al Gore. The current mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, and his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, both had low-profile speaking slots for Clinton; the city’s mayor in the 1990s, Rudy Giuliani, got to scream during prime time for Trump. Many Republican stars avoided the Trump show, which is one reason (though not the only reason) his family dominated the speaking roster, while just about the entire Democratic bench has hit the podium in Philadelphia, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — the third of the three major Democratic candidates this year — just Wednesday night.
The celebrity RSVP gap was even starker, pitting a Democratic A-list with names like Meryl Streep, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz and Sigourney Weaver, plus a climate video produced by James Cameron, against … well, Scott Baio? Trump did lure a soap opera actor who thinks Obama is a Muslim, but the wattage in Cleveland was pretty low. That’s one reason (though not the only reason) that the arena in Philadelphia has been packed this week, while there were empty seats galore in Cleveland. There’s nothing too impressive about packing a convention — that’s what happens at normal conventions — but it’s just another reminder that Cleveland wasn’t normal.