Barack Obama, the Counter-Puncher

The former president is no longer holding back on warning against his successor.

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, a lot of us experienced the whiplash of having someone in the Oval Office who was the direct opposite of his predecessor. We got a reminder of that on Wednesday when it was reported that Trump has staged an event right before Biden speaks at the Democratic Convention to detail “a half century of Joe Biden failing America.” In contrast, ABC News reported that “Obama was originally slated to close night three of the DNC, but asked to swap the order and precede Sen. Kamala Harris to symbolically pass the torch to her.”

In watching Obama’s speech, it became clear that his request to swap the order was about more than symbolism. He wanted to take on the role of making sure we all understood the stakes in the upcoming election. To do so, he prosecuted the case against Donald Trump in a way that departed from what we’ve come to expect from the 44th president.

I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.

Even when he talked about Biden and Harris, Obama drew the obvious contrast with Trump.

But more than anything, what I know about Joe and Kamala is that they actually care about every American. And they care deeply about this democracy.

They believe that in a democracy, the right to vote is sacred, and we should be making it easier for people to cast their ballot, not harder.

They believe that no one – including the president – is above the law, and that no public official – including the president – should use their office to enrich themselves or their supporters.

They understand that in this democracy, the Commander-in-Chief doesn’t use the men and women of our military, who are willing to risk everything to protect our nation, as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil. They understand that political opponents aren’t “un-American” just because they disagree with you; that a free press isn’t the “enemy” but the way we hold officials accountable; that our ability to work together to solve big problems like a pandemic depends on a fidelity to facts and science and logic and not just making stuff up.

Some people were surprised by those remarks, which seemed out of character. But I was reminded of a video clip from the 2008 Democratic primary, when Guy MacMillin of the Sentinel Source asked the candidate about his temper.

After describing himself as even-tempered, Obama referred to himself as a counter-puncher, saying that he initially gives people the benefit of the doubt, but if they abuse that, he will crush them. He laughed about that last part and called it a joke… sort of.

David Remnick, who interviewed Obama not long after the 2016 election, reminded us of how the former president initially gave Trump the benefit of the doubt.

After Trump’s victory, in 2016, Obama met with Trump once at the White House and found him unschooled and uninterested in the particulars of the office he was about to assume. Obama concealed his true alarm behind the mists of custom and euphemism. He consoled his staff, telling them that Trump’s victory was “not the apocalypse.”

But more than policy differences—which are to be expected—Obama recognizes that the current president poses a threat to our democracy. That has always been a line in the sand for him. So it was time to counter-punch. In a democracy, however, the “crushing” will have to come from us. Speaking directly to young people, Obama closed with this:

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.

That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So we have to get busy building it up – by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before.

We should all know by now that Barack Obama doesn’t engage in hyperbole. He was both lauded and criticized for being “no drama Obama.” So when he says that democracy “depends entirely on the outcome of this election,” we had best take heed, because he is simply telling the truth.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.