The Passing of the Baton

The expectations were high for President Obama’s speech last night at the Democratic Convention. He had several tasks to accomplish. First of all, he needed to remind us of what we’ve accomplished over the last eight years.

A lot’s happened over the years. And while this nation has been tested by war and recession and all manner of challenge – I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your President, to tell you I am even more optimistic about the future of America.

How could I not be – after all we’ve achieved together?

Second, he needed to acknowledge that we still have a lot more work to do.

And through every victory and every setback, I’ve insisted that change is never easy, and never quick; that we wouldn’t meet all of our challenges in one term, or one presidency, or even in one lifetime.

So tonight, I’m here to tell you that yes, we still have more work to do. More work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a decent retirement; for every child who needs a sturdier ladder out of poverty or a world-class education; for everyone who hasn’t yet felt the progress of these past seven and a half years. We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer; our homeland more secure, and our world more peaceful and sustainable for the next generation. We’re not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed – that all of us are created equal and free in the eyes of God.

Third, he needed to tell us why Donald Trump is not qualified to be president.

Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of differences with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s precisely this contest of ideas that pushes our country forward.

But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.

Fourth, he needed to make an affirmative case for Hillary Clinton to be our next president.

There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.

I hope you don’t mind, Bill, but I was just telling the truth, man.

The President accomplished all of that in the first half of his speech. Then came the really important part. At times, he took direct aim at the Republican nominee. But it was all by way of showing how Trump’s vision of America is not a reflection of who we are. In the process, he made the Republican candidate look small in comparison – not just to his opponent – but to us.

Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades, because he’s not offering any real solutions to those issues. He’s just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear. He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election.

That is another bet that Donald Trump will lose. Because he’s selling the American people short. 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. 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 together, 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…

America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard, slow, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.

Finally, Barack Obama began the process of saying goodbye to his role as president and encouraged us to get on with the next part of our journey.

America, you have vindicated that hope these past eight years. And now I’m ready to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen. This year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me – to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States, and show the world we still believe in the promise of this great nation.

Just as happened on Tuesday, history was made last night. It has been a long time since a sitting president was able to give a speech like that. While his remarks benefited from his skills as an inspirational orator, it was premised on his actual record and enthusiastic endorsement of his successor. The surprise appearance of Hillary Clinton at the end of this speech provided the exclamation point to that statement.

I couldn’t help but recall something Obama said to David Remnick almost two years ago.

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

If future historians write this part of our story accurately, I suspect that they’ll focus on the fact that – for the most part – Barack Obama got his paragraph right. And then he passed the baton to let Hillary Clinton take it from there.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.