Obama Confronts Trump's Shaky Grasp of Democracy

Riccardo Savi/Sipa via AP Images

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, on July 27, 2016.

One of the shorthand characterizations of our two political parties that has long had some truth to it has been that the Democrats are the mommy party, and the Republicans, the daddy party. This year, if the two parties’ conventions are any indication, those characterizations have become understatements. The Republicans under Donald Trump have become the swaggering macho bluster party, while the Democrats have become the take-care-of-the-children-and-don’t-bring-that-damned-gun-into-my-house party.

If you’ve watched the entire Democratic convention so far, and not just the big late-hour speeches, you’ve seen a constant drumbeat about Hillary the mom, the children’s advocate, the woman who bounced back after the defeat of Hillary-care to win the enactment of health insurance for children. You’ve seen a multi-night showcasing of her battles for gun control, attested to by a parade of bereaved mothers whose sons or daughters were gunned down by cops, or mothers whose policemen-sons and daughters were gunned down by bad guys. There’s been some presentations on paid family leave and securing equal pay for equal work, but the primary emphasis has been on Hillary and the Democrats as caregivers and comforters of the afflicted.

On Wednesday night, there was an artful segue from the Hillary who cares for us to the Hillary who secures us—the presidential candidate who’s not reckless, who doesn’t shoot from the hip, who’s a cool character in a crisis. She’s the steady hand—unlike you-know-who—not likely to launch the ballistic missiles in a fit of pique. (Indeed, Trump seems ripe for a reprise of the famous “Daisy” ad that Lyndon Johnson’s consultants devised to demonstrate the perils of entrusting nuclear weapons to Barry Goldwater—who, whatever his shortcomings, was a helluva lot more stable than Trump.)

Until Joe Biden let loose against Trump last night, this hasn’t been a convention with many hard edges. There hasn’t been that much focus on the bread and butter issues that are perennial Democratic staples. Last night’s performance by two dozen Broadway stars of “What The World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love,” the convention slogan “Love Trumps Hate,” even Tim Kaine’s Mr. Rogers-esque delivery—it’s been as if some deliberate drizzle of gentleness descended over the convention, with a clear strategic purpose in mind.

This Democratic convention is intended to persuade every woman in America that Trump is a dangerous character and Hillary, never mind what you’ve heard about her calculating opportunism, is not just the smartest kid on the block, but the most caring one, too. And if this message—which has the added virtue of being substantially true—persuades some guys, too, well, so much the better.

Virtually the entire thrust of the convention has been directed at the Rising American Electorate—women, immigrants, Latinos, African Americans, Millennials, and professionals, affirming egalitarian values as distinct from Trump’s particularism. But President Obama’s speech last night also touched a different set of values, so effectively it suggests a complementary line of attack on Trump. It’s not enough to assail Trump’s rejection of diversity as fundamentally un-American, Obama said. Just as un-American is Trump’s shaky relation to democracy.

The president jumped on the passage in Trump’s acceptance speech last week in which the Republican nominee declared: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

To this, Obama responded, “Our power doesn't come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don't look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that we the people can form a more perfect union. That's who we are. That's our birthright, the capacity to shape our own destiny.”

It should come as no surprise that Obama zeroed in on the most fundamentally menacing line in Trump’s speech, and its implications for a democratic system of government. Obama’s greatness as a speaker has always been his ability to fuse two distinct talents at the highest level: A lawyer’s facility for argumentation, for making a case, with a serious writer’s capacity for composition, for words that affect as well as convince us. Bill Clinton can make a brilliant argument, but eloquence and deep emotion is beyond him. More than any president since that other Illinois lawyer, Lincoln, Obama delivers speeches that both persuade us and move us.

During his valedictory last night, there were a few scattered shouts in the hall of “Four more years!” Obama may not have been a great president, but he surely has been a serious and at times great man—something most Americans sense, if perhaps inchoately. How else to explain the paradox that his approval ratings have exceeded 50 percent for the better part of the past year, at the same time that most Americans still rate the condition of the country as poor? In an arena filled with people looking forward to a Hillary presidency, there was a palpable sadness at the thought of saying farewell to a good man who deserved—as do we all—not so mean a time.

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