Obama at DNC: Don’t fear the future, shape it together

This article is part of a series on the Democratic National Convention.

PHILADELPHIA – In his final address as president of the United States before a Democratic National Convention, President Obama delivered a forceful message to the American people that the time had come to once again make history. Recalling his own election as the first African-American president nearly eight years ago, he encouraged maximum turnout to beat Donald Trump in November and make history again by putting the first woman into the White House.

Before thousands of delegates chanting “Yes We Can,” Obama said that while much progress has been made during his presidency, there was still farther to go and that Hillary Clinton was the candidate to lead the progressive coalition forward.

Reminding listeners of the financial crisis and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he inherited from George W. Bush, Obama said that while “a lot’s happened over the years,” he remained optimistic about the future of the country.

Yes we can, not yes he will

Obama spoke directly to disaffected Americans who feel that economic growth has left them behind. He offered a scathing critique of Trump’s false promises of authoritarian prosperity.

He acknowledged the “real anxieties” that many have about paying their bills, protecting their children, and taking care of their parents. Acknowledging the concerns of many working class voters, he said, “There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures; men who took pride in hard work and providing for their families who now feel forgotten.”

To those forgotten people, the President warned that the program of one-man rule offered by Trump and the GOP was a deception. “Does anyone really believe that a guy who’s spent his 70 years on this Earth showing no regard for working people is suddenly going to be your champion? Your voice?

“We get frustrated with political gridlock, worry about racial divisions, are shocked by the madness of Orlando and Nice,” he said, but the “deeply pessimistic vision” offered last week in Cleveland peddled only fear. Referring to Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, Obama said, “There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, blame, anger, and hate.”

The President’s speech made clear that the path ahead will only be found through collective action and democratic participation. He exclaimed that no “self-declared savior” promising order has ever brought about progress. Capturing the essence of the contrasting visions of the progressive coalition and that of Trump, Obama declared, “America isn’t about Yes He Will; it’s about Yes We Can.”

He insisted that stopping Trumpism has to go beyond just beating Trump. In a nod to Bernie Sanders’ supporters, Obama said it was necessary to elect Democrats up and down the ticket “and then hold them accountable until they get the job done.” He went further to add the need to not only vote “for a president, but for mayors and sheriffs and state’s attorneys and state legislators,” noting “that’s where the criminal law is made.”

The President was also “feeling the Bern,” praising the activists of the Political Revolution as setting the pace for the fight against inequality and the role of big money in politics. He praised their organization and persistence as models for the whole progressive movement.

Keep moving forward

Though Republicans have acted to obstruct his agenda ever since they took control of Congress in the 2010 elections, Obama reminded Democrats in the hall and Americans viewing on television of the many victories achieved since 2008. The president made clear that although Trump may describe an America in ruins, his nightmare vision does not jive with the actual facts.

To note, under the Obama administration, economic disaster was averted after the financial crisis, millions of people gained health insurance with the Affordable Care Act, the war in Iraq was ended, nuclear proliferation in Iran was prevented, the Paris Climate Agreement was hammered out, and a new relationship with Cuba was initiated.

Defending those gains and building upon them requires the broadest possible alliance of Americans from “every party, every background, every faith…black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, young, old, gay, straight, men, women, and folks with disabilities.” President Obama’s speech calling out the many elements of the coalition presented a sharp contrast to the divisive message of the Trump fear-fest in Cleveland.

This mission of unity even extended a hand, however temporary, to some conservatives, like Michael Bloomberg, who are unwilling to follow Trump down his dark road. In his speech before convention delegates earlier in the evening, Bloomberg described Trump as a “dangerous demagogue” who has to be defeated. The former mayor of New York urged Americans to elect, “a sane, competent person.”

It was a continuation of vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s invitation to Republicans upset that the GOP “has moved too far away from the party of Lincoln.”

Carry Hillary like you carried me

Obama closed out his address with an appeal to progressives to unite around the Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton. He expressed confidence that as he passes the baton and returns to private life, he was “leaving the Democratic Party in good hands.”

Discussing how Clinton has been caricatured on both the right and the left for decades and has made some mistakes, Obama explained that’s what happens when you spend “forty years trying to make a difference.” His message to delegates was one of principled pragmatism.

Putting more justice in the justice system, fighting climate change, protecting “our kids and our cops” from gun violence – achieving these goals and many more require a landslide victory in November. It was unity and faith in the future that “gave women the courage to reach for the ballot and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages,” the president explained.

Obama asked Democrats to do for Clinton what they did for him in 2008 and 2012: “Carry her the same way you carried me.”

Obama’s final call to voters in the hall and across the nation was to “reject cynicism and reject fear.” He encouraged them to “summon what is best in us” and elect Hillary Clinton. Thousands cheered during the president’s closing lines and moments later he was joined on stage by the nominee herself. The image of two presidents – one current, one future; one an African-American man and the other a white woman – was a powerful symbol of how far the nation has come since both 1865 and 1920.

Photo: President Obama and Hillary Clinton wave to the crowd during the third day of the DNC in Philadelphia. |  John Locher/AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.