Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

I began this week by writing that engagement in politics these days is both toxic and exhausting. There are times when the best I can do is simply try to stay open to the possibility of hope. As the week draws to a close, there was some balm for a weary soul in listening to Barack Obama back on the stump rallying the troops for Ralph Northam in the upcoming Virginia governor’s race.

(Obama’s speech starts at about 23:25)

From the moment I heard the strains of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” the song the Obama campaign always used for his entrances, I felt a pang of both recognition and sadness in my belly. I don’t think that has much to do with the man who was taking the stage, but a feeling I always had that prepared me to listen in anticipation of being inspired and challenged by what he had to say. The sadness is because nowadays, when I’m preparing to listen to our president, I gird myself to cringe in shame and/or shake my fists in rage.

This speech in Richmond was quintessential Obama. Here’s some of what he said:

The question now, at a time when our politics just seems so divided and so angry and so nasty is whether we can recapture that spirit—whether we support and embrace somebody who wants to bring people together.

Yes We Can!

I’ve always believed in that kind of politics because that’s American democracy at its best…I believe that when everybody gets involved, when everybody gets engaged, when everybody pushes in the same direction, that’s when good things happen.

We’re at our best, not when we’re trying to put people down, but when we’re trying to lift everybody up…

That kind of politics doesn’t always cary the day…Our politics today doesn’t reflect our values. We’ve got folks deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas, to get the base all riled up—because it provides a short-term tactical advantage….If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you aren’t going to be able to govern.

There are people all across this country that want to do things better, that want to work together.

McKay Coppins attended the speech and wonders how Obama’s message will play in Trump’s America.

…trying to pull it off now—in the midst of what feels like a national nervous breakdown—is to risk coming off as downright delusional. No one in American politics is talking about hope and unity anymore. They are talking about resistance and conquest; victory and defeat; all or nothing, us or them, and to hell with anyone who picks the wrong side.

That’s exactly why it all feels so toxic and exhausting. I’m going to let someone Coppins interviewed after the speech explain why.

A black rally-goer named Love Mack (she declined to give her full name because her husband is in the military, stationed at a nearby base) told me that the months since Obama left office had been “terrifying” for her family…

When I asked Mack if Obama’s words had reassured her at all, she seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Honestly,” she told me, “after the election, I was questioning everyone who wasn’t my race. I could not understand how Trump won. You know, how many people really think like he does? Because he ran on a platform of hate, and people voted for that.” But the diverse turnout that night had given her hope. “This is the first time [since the election] that I’ve been in a room with a mixed-race crowd and actually felt like maybe we were all on the same page,” she said. “Like, maybe these people don’t hate me.”

I’m at a loss for words in response to that. It brings me to tears. She captured how one woman has been affected by the difference between a politics of hate and a politics of hope.

Even if there is some allure to an “us vs. them” approach to politics that we think can stop short of spreading hate, the truth is that we’ll never pull it off as effectively as those who are willing to go all the way with it. There is a reason why Trump won the Republican primary and Sanders lost the Democratic primary. Liberals can be mobilized by anger, but it will always be tempered with empathy. What Obama demonstrated is that the real elixir for Democrats is hope. You could hear it in the response from that crowd in Virginia last night.

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